SANAA, September 17 – Islamist militants attacked the US embassy in the Yemeni capital Sanaa with a car bomb and rockets on Wednesday, leaving 16 people dead, in the second strike on the high-security compound in six months.,
The dead were six Yemeni soldiers, four civilians including an Indian and six attackers – one wearing an explosives belt, the interior ministry said, while a US official said there were no American casualties.
A shadowy group calling itself Islamic Jihad in Yemen claimed responsibility and threatened similar strikes against the British, Saudi and United Arab Emirates missions in the Yemeni capital.
The White House condemned the attack, with spokesman Gordon Johndroe saying it was "a reminder of the continuing threat we face from violent extremists both at home and abroad."
Witnesses said a fierce firefight erupted after gunmen raked Yemeni police guarding the heavily fortified embassy compound, before a suicide bomber blew up a car at the entrance, setting off a fireball.
A series of explosions followed as the compound came under rocket and small arms fire, they said, adding that the force of the bomb blast sent pieces of flesh a hundred metres (yards) away.
In March, a schoolgirl and a policeman were killed and 19 people wounded in a hail of mortar fire that US diplomats said targeted the embassy in Yemen, which has been battling a wave of attacks by Al-Qaeda militants for years.
After a rocket attack against a residential compound used by US oilmen in April, the US State Department ordered the evacuation of non-essential diplomatic staff, but the order was lifted last month.
The embassy said it would work with the Yemeni authorities to bring the perpetrators of the "heinous" attack to justice, adding that both its chancery and consular sections would remain closed until further notice.
"Today’s events demonstrate that terrorist criminals will not hesitate to kill innocent citizens and those charged with protecting them in pursuit of their agenda of terror," it said.
Briton Trev Mason told CNN television he heard at least three big explosions around the embassy from his nearby residential compound.
"We heard the sounds of a heavy gunbattle going on. I looked out of my window and we saw the first explosion going off, a massive fireball very close to the US embassy," he said.
In April, the embassy told its employees they were not authorised to travel outside Sanaa and to avoid public places and urged Americans in the country to take "prudent security measures" and keep a low profile.
The statement from Islamic Jihad, which could not be authenticated, claimed it was behind the "martyr" operation.
"We will pursue the series of explosions according to our pre-established plan and (target) other embassies," it said.
In a statement on Tuesday, the group threatened to "blow up the embassies" of Britain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates "if our brothers are not freed" from Yemeni prisons.
In recent years, militants have carried out a string of attacks in Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and one of the poorest countries on the planet.
In October 2000, Al-Qaeda attacked American warship the USS Cole off the southern port of Aden, using a small boat packed with explosives to blow a hole in the side of the vessel, killing 17 American sailors.
Al-Qaeda’s local wing Jund Al-Yemen Brigades has also claimed responsibility for deadly attacks on Belgian and Spanish tourists in the past two years.
A group calling itself Jihad — which is not connected to Al-Qaeda — has carried out a series of attacks against security forces and oil installations in the south of Yemen since 2003.
One of its leaders, Khaled Abdel Nabi, was captured after an exchange of fire with police last month. He had been on the run for five years.
Yemen is awash with weapons, with roughly three firearms for every citizen, and has become a major focus of the US "war against terror".
Last month, Yemen announced the arrest of 30 suspected Al-Qaeda members in a crackdown on the jihadist network in the east of the country and the death of a local chief and four others belonging to Al-Qaeda in a shootout with police.