Suicide attack on British ambassador to Yemen

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Britain's ambassador to Yemen narrowly escaped assassination yesterday after a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest moments after the embassy's security convoy passed by.

Witnesses described how a young bomber, dressed in a school uniform, approached the convoy of Tim Torlot, 52, as it drove through an impoverished neighbourhood in eastern Sana'a. Reports indicated that the bomber detonated his explosive vest too late, killing himself instantly and injuring three passers-by. No one in the security convoy, including the ambassador, was hurt in the attack which Yemen's interior ministry said bore all the hallmarks of an al-Qa'ida assassination attempt.

Britain closed its embassy following the attack and has advised any nationals living in Yemen to "keep a low profile and remain vigilant".

The explosion scattered the bomber's body parts over a wide area and left blood stains across a cement barrier next to the road where Mr Torlot's armoured car passed. Local reports said the attacker's head was found on the roof of a house more than 20 metres from the scene of the blast.

Yemeni newspapers, citing anonymous security sources, named the bomber as Osman Ali Noman Asaloi, a "22-year-old student" from Taiz province. The injured civilians, one of them a woman, were named as Fairuz Abdullah Buraq, Ali Saleh Alhadji and Noman Ahamati.

Although the attack failed to kill its target the bombing will inevitably raise questions over Yemen's ability to crack down on al-Qa'ida-linked militants who have used the impoverished nation as a safe haven to plan attacks.

The country received a major influx of military aid this year following a failed attempt to blow up a transatlantic passenger jet on Christmas Day. The United States says Umar Farouk Abdultmuttallab, a Nigerian national who had studied in the UK, received instructions and planned the attack during a visit to Yemen last year where he met al-Qa'ida leaders. The failed attack prompted Gordon Brown to call an international conference of world leaders to discuss how to tackle al-Qa'ida's presence in the southern Arabian Peninsula.

Terrorist cells are able to thrive relatively unmolested in the eastern and remote mountain areas of Yemen partly because of the country's precarious security situation. The government in Sana'a, which has openly signed up to fight al-Qa'ida, has been battling Shia al-Houthi rebels in the north and sectarian tribes in the south. It is also the poorest country in the Middle East.

Yesterday's bombing was the first in the capital for more than a year, but the country has suffered a series of terrorist attacks over the past decade. One of al-Qa'ida most audacious pre-September 11 plots – the bombing of the USS Cole – was carried out by a Yemen-based cell. In October 2000 a suicide squad rammed a small boat laden with explosives into the side the Navy destroyer, killing 17 American sailors. In 2008, two suicide bombers set off a series of blasts outside the heavily fortified US embassy in Sana'a, killing 16 people.

In recent years a group calling itself al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula has increased its presence in Yemen after Islamist cells were forced out of much of Saudi Arabia. Last year a Yemeni suicide bomber came close to killing Saudi Arabia's Minister for Internal Security by posing as a reformed militant who wanted to join the other side.

Yemen's armed forces have responded to the increasing al-Qa'ida presence with an upsurge in military action, including airstrikes that have caused widespread anger within the country's deeply conservative tribal networks.

Mr Torlot, who has been Britain's ambassador to Yemen since 2007, had been on the way to his embassy when the blast occurred. He usually travels at all times with a security detail from the Yemeni government. Since arriving in Yemen his private life has attracted unwelcome attention following revelations that he reportedly moved his pregnant mistress, the US journalist Jennifer Steil, into the embassy's official residence following the break-up of his marriage after 23 years.