Yemen’s president said on Tuesday that security authorities knew Al Qaeda was plotting attacks in the impoverished country, after a suicide car bomber killed seven Spanish tourists and two local drivers.“Yemeni security authorities had information that Al Qaeda elements were preparing to carry out terrorist attacks,” President Ali Abdullah Saleh told reporters a day after the massive blast at an ancient temple site.
They “boosted security measures around oil facilities and government institutions, but the Balqis Temple was not taken into account” as a potential target, he said.
A suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into the Spanish tourists’ convoy as they were wrapping up a tour of the temple in Marib, 170 kilometres east of the capital Sanaa.
The temple dates back 3,000 years, to the time of the biblical Queen of Sheba. The site has become a major tourist attraction since its significance was discovered in 1988, despite the threat of kidnapping by local tribesmen.
The bombing was the worst attack against Westerners in the Arabian Peninsula country since Al Qaeda extremists struck the USS Cole off the southern port of Aden in 2000, killing 17 US sailors.
Spain’s Onda Cero radio quoted survivor Maria Begona Larrabeiti as saying the experience was “an absolute nightmare.” “I saw the first car burning. In the second, people were in a bad state and, in mine, people were screaming,” she said.
In addition to the nine people killed on Monday, six Spanish tourists, two Yemeni drivers and four police guards escorting the tourists were wounded.
No group has claimed responsibility.
“Preliminary information suggests the perpetrator of the attack was an Arab national,” Saleh said without elaborating.
A security source told AFP the bombing was apparently masterminded by Al Qaeda suspects still on the run after escaping from a Sanaa prison in February last year.
At least three of the 23 Al Qaeda suspects who tunnelled out of jail remain at large after the others gave themselves up or were arrested or killed.
One of those still at large is Jamal Ahmad Badawi, convicted and sentenced to death for the USS Cole blast and featured on the US list of most-wanted terrorists with a $5m bounty on his head.
“Security agencies have upgraded their readiness to 100 per cent to track down the elements involved in this criminal and irresponsible act,” Saleh said.
Authorities are also hunting the escaped Al Qaeda suspects, who number “three to four,” he said.
Saleh announced a reward of 15 million rials ($82,000) for anyone who gave information leading to the capture or killing of any “terrorist.”
Spain, still mourning the loss of six peacekeepers in a car bombing in Lebanon late last month, dispatched two military planes with senior officials to collect the remains of the dead.
The planes, also carrying a police forensic team to help with the investigation, were expected to arrive later Tuesday. Spanish authorities have announced they will open “terrorism proceedings” into the crime.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the tourists were “victims of a criminal attack”, while the El Pais newspaper warned of Al Qaeda’s “global strategy”.
Al Qaeda has been blamed for a series of attacks in Yemen, the ancestral homeland of its leader Osama Ben Laden, some of them predating the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
Since 9/11, Yemen has received assistance in its counterterrorism efforts from US special forces based over the Bab Mandab strait in Djibouti.
Thirty-six Yemenis are currently on trial charged with planning and carrying out attacks for Al Qaeda, including the escapees who are being tried in absentia.
Extremists targeted oil facilities in Yemen in September last year and in March 2003 when a Canadian was killed and another wounded at an oil field east of Sanaa.
In December 2002, three American doctors were killed and a fourth gravely wounded in an attack by an Islamist extremist at a Baptist hospital in Jibla, south of the capital.