Yemen defense minister's convoy hit by blast

August 30, 2011 - 3:15 PM
Mideast Yemen Eid al-Fitr

Protestors shout slogans after Eid al-Fitr prayers on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011. Eid al-Fitr is a Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.(AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A military convoy escorting Yemen's defense minister on Tuesday set off an explosive device that killed two soldiers, an official said, in a brazen attack on security forces fighting al-Qaida-linked militants.

The minister, Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, was not injured.

Tuesday's attack took place in the area of Wadi Dufas in the southern province of Abyan, where al-Qaida-linked militants have been establishing a strong power base in recent months.

The security official said it was not immediately known who planted the explosive or when. He declined to characterize it as an assassination attempt on the minister.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said Ahmed was in Abyan visiting troops on the first day of the three-day Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday.

Security forces have been battling al-Qaida-linked fighters in Abyan for months. The militants have been taking advantage of political turmoil in Yemen around large demonstrations demanding the resignation of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In June, Saleh was wounded in a bomb attack on his palace and departed for Saudi Arabia for treatment. He is still there, but he insists he will return home, defying international demands that he step down.

Near daily anti-Saleh protests and growing political disarray have created a security vacuum in southern Yemen, where al-Qaida-linked militants are battling the military for control.

The West views al-Qaida's branch in Yemen as one of the group's most violent and dangerous.

The defense minister is a longtime ally of Saleh and has openly pledged the military's support to him, though the army's powerful 1st Armored Division is backing the protesters.

The swift takeover of Abyan's capital city of Zinjibar by al-Qaida-linked militants in June sent tens of thousands of residents fleeing for safety elsewhere.

Also Tuesday, a Yemeni medical official said six suspected al-Qaida militants were killed in clashes in Wadi Dufas. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

An official statement by Yemen's Interior Ministry said 300 militants have been killed since May.

Abyan Governor Saleh al-Azari said that the Yemeni army has dealt a heavy blow to the al-Qaida-linked militants in the province over the past few days.

The army has also suffered losses. At least nine soldiers and an army colonel have been killed since Sunday in battles near Wadi Dufas, according to security officials.