Yemeni militants attack elite paratroopers, killing 20

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

SANA, Yemen -- Militants believed linked to Al Qaeda staged a deadly dawn strike Monday on a remote checkpoint in southern Yemen, killing 20 elite paramilitary troops and wounding eight others in the latest blow to government forces at the hands of Islamist extremists.

The Interior Ministry confirmed the fatalities in the checkpoint raid outside the city of Al-Raidah in restive Hadhramaut province and said several senior security officials had been suspended in response. Witnesses and officials said that most of the slain special forces troops were asleep when the surprise attack took place and that the assailants escaped.

Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the Interior Ministry blamed a group known as Ansar al Sharia, loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen franchise is known. Officials and analysts said the strike bore the hallmarks of Al Qaeda, whose offshoots in Yemen are considered among the organization’s most dangerous.

Impoverished Yemen, strategically located close to key oil-shipping routes, has fallen into increasing turmoil in the wake of the 2011 uprising that drove out its strongman president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. A concerted campaign of U.S. drone strikes aimed at militant figures has stirred popular anger, with outrage fueled by ever-mounting reports of civilian casualties alongside intended targets.

Monday’s raid was a carefully planned and complex operation, involving attackers who arrived in four vehicles and were armed with both light and heavy weapons. The attackers initially killed two soldiers standing guard about 5:30 a.m., then swiftly broke into the checkpoint’s barracks, catching the troops inside unawares. Five of the wounded were in critical condition, officials said.

As in many such strikes on military installations, the attackers’ methods suggested familiarity with routines of the soldiers deployed there, perhaps from inside knowledge that had been passed on to the militants. Reinforcements and helicopters rushed to the scene, but the attackers had already gotten away, and choppers were used to ferry away the dead.

"The operation was ... massacre-like,” said analyst Saeed Obaid Jamhi, who studies Al Qaeda. He predicted that security personnel and installations could continue to come under attack to avenge perceived government acquiescence to the U.S. drone strikes. He also said jihadist ranks were being swelled by battle-hardened veterans of the war in Syria, some of them Yemeni and some from elsewhere in the region.

In 2012, Yemen’s U.S.-backed military managed to push Al Qaeda-affiliated militants from key strongholds in the south, but the extremists have since rallied. Assassinations targeting security and intelligence figures have become commonplace, and another occurred Monday in the capital, Sana.

In a sign of public sentiment surrounding the drone strikes, which have been sharply criticized by human rights groups, hundreds of people last week turned out for the funeral of a boy who had suffered a mental breakdown after witnessing at close range the carnage left by a 2012 drone strike in Hadhramaut’s port city of Shihr.

Adding to the challenges facing the weak central government, sectarian clashes in northwestern Yemen -- one of several hot spots for infighting that plagues much of the country -- killed 12 people on Saturday in the city of Amran.

For the record, 5:33 p.m., March 24: A previous version of this post said the checkpoint that came under attack was in eastern Yemen. It was in southern Yemen. The earlier version also said clashes in the city of Amran killed 12 people on Sunday. The fighting occurred Saturday.

Ali is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Laura King in Cairo contributed to this report.

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