Gun battle erupts outside British embassy in Yemen

Click to follow

Two people were killed and three were injured yesterday during a gun battle near the British embassy in Yemen.

Two people were killed and three were injured yesterday during a gun battle near the British embassy in Yemen.

The shoot-out started when a group of tribesmen on their way to a wedding defied guards and drove through an off-limits area. Embassy staff took cover inside the building. "There were no injuries among British embassy staff, but we can hear the bullets coming in our direction," said the ambassador, Frances Guy.

Supporters of al-Qa'ida have claimed responsibility for a wave of bombings in Yemen aimed at security officials, government offices and foreign embassies since the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Almost a year ago a grenade shattered windows and damaged a generator at the embassy in Sanaa but the Foreign Office insisted last night that yesterday's shooting was not directed at the embassy.

"The incident is not politically motivated and started after an argument between tribesmen and police officers who tried to enforce laws barring carrying weapons in major cities," a Yemeni official said.

The dead, he said, were one Yemeni guard and one member of the Hashid tribe. Another guard was believed to be in a serious condition.

Guns and explosives are widely sold in the country, a legacy of years of civil war. Weapons are carried openly by civilians and recent efforts by the authorities to confiscate illegal arms have made only modest progress. Tribal allegiances are all-important.

The bombing of the British embassy on 13 October last year caused extensive damage but no one was injured. Four men, allegedly members of the outlawed Yemeni militant group the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Yemen has been a fertile al-Qa'ida recruiting ground and members of the organisation are believed to be hiding within vast tribal areas beyond government control.

Although the government has officially backed the US-led war on terrorism, there remains a great deal of anti-American sentiment in the population of 17 million and pockets of support for Osama bin Laden's followers. The dislike extends to Britain, compounded by the country's chequered history in the region. British forces only withdrew from the Aden protectorate in 1967.

The most recent example of violence was the bombing of the United States navy destroyer USS Cole in Aden in 2000, which killed 17 American sailors – an act attributed to the Bin Laden terrorist network. In June, a British frigate became the first foreign ship to call at the port since the Cole bombing, a visit hailed by Yemeni officials as proof they could ensure the safe passage of foreign vessels.

Keen to shake off a reputation as a haven for militants, the government has been waging a campaign to hunt down al-Qa'ida members. While it has said it is cracking down on the violence, the continuing conflict in Israel, the threat of war in Iraq and the militancy of Muslims in the region could wrench matters beyond its control.