SAN'A, Yemen – Four suspected al-Qaida gunmen blasted their way into the intelligence headquarters of Yemen's second largest city Saturday and freed several detainees in the group's most spectacular operation since a U.S.-backed government crackdown began late last year.
The attack on the heavily protected security complex killed 11 and further bolstered U.S. concerns that Yemen's weak central government may not be up to tackling an increasingly effective foe seemingly able to strike anywhere inside or outside the country.
"We were hit where we least expected it," Yemeni Information Minister Hassan al-Lozy told the Al-Arabiya news channel. "This is a serious escalation from these terrorist elements."
U.S. officials say insurgents, including Americans, are training in militant camps in Yemen's vast lawless spaces and allying with powerful tribes opposed to the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Those concerns deepened last December, when al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner.
In the wake of the Christmas attack, with U.S. aid, training and intelligence, Yemen's military and air force have struck repeatedly at al-Qaida sites and suspected hideouts, and arrested several suspects.
In a statement, the Yemeni government said the attacks bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida and resulted in the death of seven members of the security forces, three women and a child in the southern port city of Aden, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) south of the capital.
The fact that one of the most important security institutions in the country's second largest city could be attacked reflects the state's weakness, said analyst Mansour Hael, hinting that the attackers must have had inside help.
"The question to ask is how these attackers were able to infiltrate such a fortified security area. This raises a number of suspicions," he said.
The headquarters of the powerful intelligence agency is located in an upscale neighborhood of government offices overlooking the sea, flanked by the state television building and a branch of the Transport Ministry.
It was the same facility that 10 prisoners broke out of in 2003, including one involved in the plot to blow up the USS Cole in 2000, that killed 17 American sailors.
An eyewitness said the gunmen in military uniforms approached the building after parking their old sedan and a microbus at the nearby historic Crescent Hotel. The witness, who works in the building but was outside at the time of the attack, said the gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades and threw hand grenades at the building's entrance before charging inside in a hail of bullets.
In the course of the half hour fire fight, said the witness, a number of the guards threw down their weapons and fled and the attackers managed to escape with several detainees, leaving the building on fire. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Yemen's security officials did not comment on whether any detainees were freed, only saying that nine people were injured in the attack and eight others have been detained for their suspected involvement.
There have been several other al-Qaida prison breaks, including a key one in 2006 when 23 top al-Qaida operatives tunneled their way out of a prison and boosted the organization's strength.
In 2009, the organization merged with the Saudi branch of al-Qaida and dramatically increased the pace of its attacks, including an unsuccessful attempt on the life of the British ambassador in April.
The early Saturday attack follows a military campaign in eastern Yemen against suspected al-Qaida hideouts, which prompted the movement to issue a statement on militant websites Friday threatening to "set the ground on fire under the tyrants of infidelity in (President) Saleh's regime and his U.S. collaborators."
An earlier statement by the local branch of al-Qaida also urged its supporters to free the group's members held in prisons around the region.
American worries about Yemen's ability to fight al-Qaida heightened last year after several Yemeni detainees who had been released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, resurfaced as leaders of the al-Qaida offshoot.
In recent months, the U.S. Defense Department approved spending $155 million to help Yemen in its fight, including the purchase of four helicopters to support counterterror operations there.
The money also includes $34.5 million to train and equip the Yemeni special forces and another $38 million for aircraft to allow those forces quicker access to hotspots in the country.
The U.S. State Department has also acknowledged this month that Yemeni authorities are holding 12 Americans in custody, apparently part of al-Qaida's efforts to hit targets in the U.S.