British ambassador in Yemen escapes suicide bomb attack

The British ambassador to Yemen survived a terrorist attack yesterday when a suicide bomber hurled himself at the diplomat's convoy and blew himself up, injuring three Yemenis.

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SANA'A // The British ambassador to Yemen survived a terrorist attack yesterday when a suicide bomber hurled himself at the diplomat's convoy and blew himself up, injuring three Yemenis. Tim Torlot was only a few hundred metres from the British Embassy compound in the capital, Sana'a, when the attacker struck.

The ministry of interior identified the attacker as Othman Ali al Selwi, a 22-year-old student. The suicide bomber, who wore "an explosive belt" threw himself at the diplomat's convoy, the ministry said in a statement. "The failed terrorist attack that targeted the British ambassador in Sana'a carries the fingerprints of al Qa'eda," it added. Chantel Mortimer, a spokesperson at the British Embassy, said no one in the ambassador's convoy was hurt.

"We can confirm there was a small explosion beside the ambassador's car. He was not hurt. No one in the convoy was injured," Ms Mortimer said. "We believe it is a suicide attack and the ambassador was the target. We are working closely with the Yemeni authorities to investigate the attack and we will provide all assistance we can to Yemeni authorities in its investigations." The attack against Mr Torlot, who became ambassador to Yemen in 2007 after his previous position as deputy head of the British diplomatic mission in Iraq, was the first suicide attack in Yemen since March 2009. The US Embassy was attacked by a suicide bombing in 2008, which killed 16 people.

The attack in Berlin street in the eastern Sana'a district of Noqom, injured three bystanders, one of them a woman, according to the interior ministry. Police sealed off the street for hours and started collecting the remains of the attacker's body which was torn to pieces. The explosion was described by witnesses as "huge" and smashed the windows of nearby houses and parked cars. "I heard a strong blast; I hurried to the site and could see blood and body parts scattered," said Abdulatif al Hamati, a witness. "The head of the attacker was found on the roof of a nearby building."

Police launched a mass arrest of suspects in the eastern neighbourhood of Musaik, which is popular with Islamist radicals, witnesses said. No information was available on how many people were arrested. The British embassy was closed until further notice. "We advise all British nationals in Yemen to keep a low profile and remain vigilant," Ms Mortimer said. Following air raids on militants in December, Yemen's defence ministry said that an attack against the British Embassy was foiled after an al Qa'eda cell was dismantled in Arhab, 35km north of Sana'a.

After the failed Christmas bombing of a US airline, which was claimed by the Yemen-based al Qa'eda militants, the US and British missions were closed in January. At that time, al Qa'eda warned that it would target western interests in the country. Backed by the United States, the government of Yemen has stepped up its attacks against the Yemeni branch of al Qa'eda. About 42 civilians, including women and children, were killed in an air strike on December 17 in the Abyan village of Al Maajala, sparking nationwide anger. After a fact-finding parliamentary committee report, the government in March apologised to the families of the civilian victims of the attack and pledged to compensate them.

The government said that in January, security forces killed six suspected al Qa'eda militants in the northern part of the country and in March two senior al Qa'eda suspects were killed in an air strike in the southern province of Abyan. Yesterday's attack is a retaliation by al Qa'eda against those strikes, according to Saeed Obaid al Jamhi, an al Qa'eda expert based in Sana'a. "This attack were expected [because] al Qa'eda has lately received strong hits. The organisation used to fight back through media. By this attack, al Qa'eda would like to show it is still strong," Mr al Jamhi said.

According to him, the operation demonstrated confusion within the organisation. "Al Qa'eda used to choose key and difficult targets but now it is moving to easy ones. Watching and targeting a diplomat is not that difficult and therefore, this is a signal of weakness and confusion," Mr al Jamhi said. The British foreign office warned its citizens against travelling to Yemen, citing a "high threat" of terrorism in the country. * with additional reporting by David Sapsted in London