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SANAA (Reuters) - Suspected al Qaeda gunmen assaulted two south Yemen security buildings on Wednesday in coordinated attacks, setting off clashes in which at least four people were killed, police said.
Some of the attackers, riding motorcycles, roared into police headquarters and the office of an intelligence agency handling political security in the town of Zinjibar in the flashpoint Abyan province, security officials said.
They opened fire as officers gathered in ranks for the morning roll call, the officials said.
Yemen, next to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, leapt to the forefront of Western security concerns after a Yemen-based regional al Qaeda wing claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound plane in December.
"A large number of gunmen attacked the Political Security and the General Security (police) offices at the beginning of the workday. Security guards fired on them, and there are dead and wounded on the scene," a police source said. "It is believed that the attackers were members of al Qaeda," he added.
The assault was the second by suspected al Qaeda gunmen on Yemen security offices in less than a month. In June, al Qaeda attackers raided the regional headquarters of the political security office in the southern port city of Aden, killing 11.
"We're witnessing a major shift in al Qaeda's policy," Mustafa Alani, of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, said. "We're entering a stage where there is a real, face to face confrontation between the security community and al Qaeda."
That marks a switch in al Qaeda tactics in Yemen, which appears now to be hitting the government with as much fervor as it previously focused on Western targets.
Alani said al Qaeda's efforts are a response to an escalated government crackdown on the militant group which has further intensified since the June attack in Aden, and to the increased coordination between Yemeni security and the United States.
Around 20 gunmen, a handful of motorcycles and two cars were all involved in Wednesday's attack, security officials said. Gunmen also launched a sniper attack from an empty nearby school, the defense ministry's online newspaper said.
Witnesses reached in Zinjibar after the attack told Reuters they saw five people believed dead on the street. They said the gunmen sped away on their motorcycles after the attack and subsequent clashes that continued sporadically.
The Defense Ministry said police pursued the attackers and arrested seven, who it said were al Qaeda militants. Security forces also found one of the cars used in the attack, which was filled with weapons and explosive belts, the ministry said.
Security sources put the death toll at four, with two attackers and two security men dead. At least five others were wounded.
Al Qaeda's June attack, which it described as revenge for a state assault on a militant stronghold, was among the bloodiest in Yemen since the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 that killed 17 sailors.
A suicide attack on the U.S. embassy in 2008 by an al Qaeda-linked group killed 16 people, including 6 attackers.
"This attack will only generate more attacks on al Qaeda by security forces," Alani said. "They want to demoralize Yemen's security community and paralyze their operations. They want to show they are up to the challenge."
Yemen's Western and Saudi allies want Sanaa, also trying to cement a northern truce with Shi'ite rebels and quell southern separatism, to resolve domestic conflicts so it can focus on fighting al Qaeda, a situation militants may be exploiting.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Erika Solomon and Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Jon Loades-Carter