WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Wednesday a brazen attack on the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy complex in Yemen bore “all the hallmarks” of al Qaeda but no final conclusions had been made on who was to blame.
U.S. President George W. Bush said the attackers were trying to make the United States “lose our nerve and to withdraw from regions of the world.”
“This attack is a reminder that we are at war with extremists who will murder innocent people to achieve their ideological objectives,” said Bush, with the outgoing U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, at his side.
At least 16 people, including six attackers, were killed in the Yemen blasts, a Yemeni Interior Ministry official said. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said a U.S. Embassy guard, a Yemeni national, was among the dead but that all U.S. diplomatic staff were safe.
Islamic Jihad in Yemen has claimed responsibility. McCormack said it was not certain who was to blame but added the attacks were well-planned and sophisticated, similar to previous strikes blamed on al Qaeda, which was responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
“After talking to the security personnel, the attack bears all the hallmarks of an al Qaeda attack where you have multiple vehicle-borne devices, along with personnel on foot,” he said.
A U.S. counter-terrorism official also said it was too early to assign responsibility but echoed McCormack that it “bears all the hallmarks” of al Qaeda, whose leader Osama bin Laden has strong ties to Yemen.
Nearly a year before the September 11 attacks, al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole warship in October 2000 when it was docked in the southern Yemen port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors.
In the latest attack, one car bomb exploded at the guard’s post outside the embassy and the second was near a pedestrian entrance, McCormack said.
Several attackers were seen on foot and the goal appeared to breach the wall of the embassy complex and to kill people inside, he said.
The United States has often criticized Yemen for not doing enough to prevent its territory from becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda and other groups and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to the country’s president on Wednesday to push this point.
“We want to underscore with Yemen’s government that it is critically important to work with them on counter-terrorism,” McCormack said of the call made by Rice.
“Have they done a lot in the past (to prevent terrorism)? Yes. Could they do more? Yes, absolutely,” he said.
More than a third of the inmates at the U.S. security detainee prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are from Yemen. The United States has been negotiating with the Yemeni government for their return to the country but U.S. officials say progress has been slow in getting either security guarantees or assurances they would be treated humanely.
A Yemeni man convicted of plotting and taking part in the USS Cole bombing was briefly released from jail in Yemen last year, according to news reports that were denied by Yemen’s government.
The State Department said at the time it found the reports disturbing and voiced strong objections to the Yemeni government.
“This guy who was convicted as part of the Cole bombing walking relatively free — that’s a problem,” said a senior U.S. official on Wednesday. “There is certainly a lot of headroom in terms of making progress in fighting terrorism.”
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Randall Mikkelsen and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Bill Trott