SANAA, Yemen — In a strike that bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida, assailants in military uniforms staged a brazen daytime assault Thursday on Yemen’s Defense Ministry, setting off a daylong battle that killed at least 52 people and left scores injured, with some foreigners believed to be among the dead.
The attack, which terrorized residents of a crowded district in the capital’s old city, began with a thunderous car-bomb blast at the compound’s gate, and then a push by fighters on foot and armed with assault weapons. Their target was a hospital within the ministry complex where some foreign aid workers were based. A Supreme Court judge and his wife were reported to have been killed.
Officials said the attackers wore military garb, apparently stolen, which fueled confusion among those trying to defend the ministry, the headquarters of Yemen’s military. The assailants also may have had stolen government license plates on their vehicles, officials said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the early-morning attack, but officials said the complex nature of the assault prompted them to suspect the group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, one of al-Qaida’s most dangerous offshoots. Its leaders and fighters have been the frequent targets of U.S. drone attacks.
Yemen is strategically located on vital shipping routes, particularly through the Red Sea, which makes its growing instability a serious concern to the United States and its allies. Al-Qaida has moved to exploit deepening chaos in the wake of the ouster of Yemen’s longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 2011 as part of the “Arab Spring” uprisings.
The central government has only a tenuous grip on security and is battling rebellions in the north and south.
By evening, hours after the initial strike, gunfire was still being heard. Military officials said they thought that most or all of the assailants were dead but that others could be holed up in the ministry or nearby buildings.
The supreme security committee, made up of senior military and security officials, later said that 52 people had been killed and 167 injured. The committee said there were 16 attackers; it was not clear whether they were among those listed among the dead and wounded.
The suicide car bombing that began the attack was powerful enough to shatter windows for blocks around. The congested neighborhood is home to Yemen’s central bank as well as many residences and office buildings. People stayed indoors as military helicopters thudded overhead and heavy explosions rang out throughout the day.
Special correspondent Ali reported from Sanaa and Times staff writer King from Cairo.