By Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen's defense minister escaped an assassination attempt on Tuesday but at least seven people died in the car bombing that followed the killing of al Qaeda's second-in-command in the country, government sources said.
Witnesses said the blast happened as Major General Muhammad Nasir Ahmad's motorcade left the prime minister's office in Sanaa after a cabinet meeting. Seven people were wounded.
One vehicle carrying security personnel was destroyed but the minister, who was travelling in a different armored car, survived. Aides said he was unhurt and had told Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa he was safe.
"A booby-trapped car waited for the motorcade of the minister near the government offices and as soon as it moved, it exploded," a security source told Reuters. "A security car was totally destroyed and all its occupants were killed, but the minister survived because his car is armored."
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which followed the killing of the deputy leader of the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda, Said al-Shehri, in an attack last week.
Al Qaeda blames the minister for leading a campaign that drove it from strongholds in southern Yemen, an area that has become of increasing concern to the United States in its campaign against Islamist militants.
Yemen claimed a major victory in its battle with al Qaeda this week with the death of Shehri, although public anger about U.S. drone attacks remains strong because of civilian deaths.
Shehri was wanted by Yemeni, Saudi and U.S. authorities over his role in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
A former inmate of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Shehri was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007, but after time on a Saudi militant rehabilitation program he escaped to Yemen and possibly had a role in a 2008 attack on the U.S. embassy.
Last year Yemen claimed it had killed him, only for it to emerge Shehri was still at large.
"Shehri's death is a painful blow to al Qaeda after the grievous losses it suffered in Abyan," state-owned daily al-Thawra said in a front page headline, referring to a province where the army had forced Islamist militants from this year.
Officials say it was the fourth assassination attempt against the defense minister since a new government was formed last December, after a power transfer deal under which long-ruling President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down.
ANGER OVER CIVILIAN DEATHS
Ten people were killed last week in an apparent drone attack that missed its target or was based on wrong information - further stoking public anger over U.S. operations in Yemen, a new frontline in Washington's global war on al Qaeda.
There was conflicting information on how Shehri died, highlighting the government's awkward position in a drone war that many Yemenis are skeptical about.
While the government claimed it was an army operation, security sources said he died in a U.S. drone attack last Wednesday in Hadramout.
Analyst Nasser Arrabyee said the Yemeni government wanted to claim a success to market the U.S.-led campaign to the public.
"People are angry because of the mistakes that were made when people were killed," he said. "But most people know that al Qaeda should be defeated and is dangerous for the country."
Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables showed Saleh agreed in 2009 to a covert U.S. war on Islamist militants that he would claim Yemeni responsibility for when necessary.
Yemenis fear that the U.S. focus on militants is diverting attention and resources away from pressing issues such as unemployment, corruption, water depletion and economic revival.
"The government is certainly keen to show they are active and successful in the fight against al Qaeda and at the same time to tell its own people there is no active and open U.S. military action," said Ghanem Nuseibeh, senior analyst with Cornerstone Global.
"The authorities seem to have decided that claiming responsibility is less risky than saying the Americans did it."
(Additional reporting by Andrew Hammond; Writing by Sami Aboudi and Andrew Hammond; Editing by Angus MacSwan and David Stamp)
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