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Britain’s No. 2 diplomat escapes attack in Yemen

- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 6, 2010

SAN'A, Yemen (AP) — Assailants fired a rocket at a convoy carrying Britain's No. 2 diplomat in Yemen and killed a Frenchman working for an Austrian oil company Wednesday in a pair of attacks that heightened fears over the safety of Westerners in a country facing a growing militant threat.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack on the British motorcade, but the violence casts doubt on the effectiveness of the Yemeni government's U.S.-backed campaign to uproot al Qaeda militants. Al Qaeda's offshoot in Yemen has found a haven in parts of the mountainous, impoverished nation where the central government's control is weak.

The rocket hit the back of a car carrying five embassy personnel, including the deputy chief of mission, an Interior Ministry official said on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to media.

One embassy official suffered minor injuries and was undergoing treatment, while the rest, including deputy chief of mission Fionna Gibb, were unharmed, Britain's Foreign Office said.

It was the second attack in less than six months to target British officials in the country, and the latest since Yemeni authorities recently boosted security around embassies in San'a after receiving information that al Qaeda was planning an attack.

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the "shameful attack" and said it "will only redouble Britain's determination to work with the government of Yemen to help address the challenges that country faces."

He said Yemen was a difficult and dangerous place to work and the blast serves as "a reminder that we have some way to go" in efforts to make the country safer.

Three bystanders were also wounded, a Yemeni security official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

A Yemeni who arrived at the site soon after hearing the explosion said he saw two people fleeing the scene. "Next to the site we found a bag with parts of the weapon launcher," Ali Mossad told AP Television News.

The Foreign Office said Yemen's top diplomat, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, promised a vigorous investigation into the attack.

The violence came a day after a visit by third-ranking U.S. diplomat William Burns to discuss the security situation, which has deteriorated across the country in recent years as militants — some with al Qaeda links, some without — have stepped up attacks on police, military and intelligence agencies.

They also have increasingly taken aim at Western targets, including two attacks on the U.S. Embassy in San'a in 2008. Earlier this year, a number of Western embassies, including the U.S. and British, shut down for days in response to terror threats.

In April, the British ambassador escaped an attack by a suicide bomber who blew himself up near the diplomat's armored car in a poor neighborhood of the capital. Wednesday's attack took place in the same district of San'a, near the British Embassy.

Security officials say militants may have shifted their focus away from attacking Western embassies to diplomatic motorcades because of increased defenses at the embassies.

The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, also said that recent attacks in heavily defended San'a suggest that active al Qaeda cells now operate in the capital, shattering the notion that the terror group could only find refuge in remote mountainous and desert areas where the central government has virtually no authority.

In a separate attack outside San'a, a Yemeni security guard shot and killed a Frenchman working for the French engineering firm SPIE that is under contract with the Austrian oil and gas company OMV.

A British national was also wounded in the attack and was hospitalized.

Yemeni authorities confirmed the attack and said the security guard was arrested and charged with the shooting. The suspect, Hisham Assem, was contracted to OMV through a private security company.

Pascal Omnes, a SPIE spokesman, said the slain man worked as a logistics and procurement manager.

SPIE, which in Yemen has about 100 employees who hail from about 20 countries, has instructed all non-essential personnel to return home as soon as possible — an order affecting about 15 to 20 people, Mr. Omnes said. He said the company has also raised its internal security alert level in the country.

The motive for the attack was under investigation, but OMV — an oil exploration and production company and has been active in Yemen since 2003 — said it "currently sees no political background for the action."

Yemen says it is waging an aggressive campaign to uproot al Qaeda, and Washington has earmarked some $150 million in military assistance to the government to help combat the threat with training, equipment and intelligence help.

Mr. Burns said Tuesday that the U.S. will continue to support San'a in its fight against terrorism.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of Osama bin Laden's terror network, was formed more than a year ago when Yemen and Saudi militant groups merged. Al Qaeda fighters are believed to have built up strongholds in remote parts of the country, allying with powerful tribes that resent the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Nigerian suspect in the failed Christmas Day plot to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner has said he received training from al Qaeda militants in Yemen, according to U.S. investigators. In February, the offshoot's military commander, Qassim al-Raimi, warned of further attacks against Americans.

Associated Press writers Danica Kirka and David Stringer contributed to this report from London.

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