By Mohammed Ghobari Mohammed Mokhashaf, Reuters July 24, 2011
ADEN/SANAA, July 24 (Reuters) - A suicide bomber drove a booby-trapped car into an army checkpoint outside Yemen's southern port city of Aden on Sunday, killing at least nine soldiers and wounding 21 others, officials and medical sources said.
The attack, which the government blamed on al-Qaida's Yemen-based wing, comes weeks after the army deployed security forces to surround the coastal city, which lies east of a shipping strait where some 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.
The military has been trying to stop militants from slipping into Aden, after they seized several areas in the neighbouring province of Abyan in recent months and presented a rising challenge to military control.
Unrest in the south has erupted as mass protests seeking to end President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year rule drag into a sixth month, setting off sporadic clashes across the fractious and impoverished country. Saleh is convalescing in Riyadh after a bomb blast in his presidential compound in June.
The Defence Ministry said the attacker, who also died in the explosion, hit a convoy at the checkpoint that had been headed to reinforce a military offensive on Abyan's provincial capital of Zinjibar, which the army has been trying to recapture from militants for over a week.
"The suicide attack by al-Qaida hit a convoy headed to Abyan . . . the attacker died and his limbs were scattered around the area," the ministry said in a mobile phone message sent to journalists in Yemen.
The blast comes days after a car rigged with explosives blew up and killed a British ship surveyor in Aden, which officials said was a targeted attack against the long-time resident.
Witnesses to the checkpoint attack on Sunday said they saw a car speed into a street cordoned off by armoured vehicles. It blew up, setting at least two of the vehicles ablaze as a cloud of smoke spread over the area.
"The car crashed into a military armoured vehicle, which exploded and caught fire. The soldiers started shooting heavily," a witness said.
FIGHTING RAGES IN SOUTH
Abyan has descended into daily violence since militants seized at least two cities and a makeshift military base, forcing 54,000 residents to flee to Aden.
Security analyst Theodore Karasik, of the Dubai-based INEGMA group, said the style of the attack suggested al-Qaida was behind it.
"This has all the hallmarks of al-Qaida . . . They (the convoy) were preparing to go to Abyan to join the fighting so this is an al-Qaida tactic to interrupt the flow of soldiers to that area," he said.
The United States and neighbouring oil giant Saudi Arabia, both targets of failed attacks by al-Qaida's Yemen-based wing, fear rising turmoil in Yemen may give the militant group more room operate.
Opponents of Saleh accuse him of allowing his forces to ease up their grip around militant strongholds, to spark concerns in the international community that al-Qaida can only be kept at bay with him at the helm.
A military source told Reuters the Sunday attack would not deter the offensive in Abyan, in which dozens have been killed or wounded and little territory regained.
"The attack won't stop the armed forces from going after the terrorists in Abyan," he said.