- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 24, 2010

SAN’A, Yemen — A suicide car bomber struck a convoy of Yemeni Shi’ites on their way to a religious ceremony on Wednesday, killing 17 and wounding more than 15 people, a security official said.

The official said authorities suspected al Qaeda was behind the attack, though it would be the extremist organization’s first reported direct assault on the country’s Shi’ite minority.

Yemen’s local of branch of al Qaeda has been increasingly active over the past year, assaulting government targets inside the country as well carrying high-profile attacks abroad such as last month’s attempt to ship parcel bombs to the U.S. through cargo planes.

While the militants have always been rhetorically extremely hostile to Yemen’s Shi’ite community, they have not attacked them directly in Yemen, unlike in Iraq where the sectarian warfare is more pronounced.

Like many Arab countries throughout the region, Yemen’s Muslim population is split between the majority Sunnis sect and Shi’ites, whom hard-liners often describe as heretics.

The Yemeni official said the attack took place in al-Jawf province, 109 miles northeast of the capital, San’a and those killed were supporters of the Shi’ite Hawthi rebels, a tribal group who have waged an on-and-off uprising against the government.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

A Hawthi spokesman confirmed the casualties and added that the rebels also suspected al Qaeda involvement. He spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.

The attack comes two months after al Qaeda accused the Hawthis of nabbing two of its members and handing them over to the security chief of Saada province.

Since January 2009, when al Qaeda’s battered Saudi and Yemeni branches merged to form al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror group has become increasingly emboldened, directing attacks in the capital and across the countryside against officials and foreigners.

Apart from the al Qaeda threat, Yemen’s weak central government has also struggled with a separatist movement in the south and the Hawthi rebels in the north.

Occasional skirmishes between government troops and the Shi’ite rebels have raised concerns the six-year-old conflict that nearly turned into a regional war could re-ignite.

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