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Does major attack in Yemen point to Al Qaeda?

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Yemen Defense Ministry/AP

(Read caption) This photo provided by Yemen's Defense Ministry shows a damaged vehicle after an explosion at the Defense Ministry complex in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013.

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Unidentified militants launched a brazen attack in the heart of Yemen's capital Thursday morning, targeting the country's defense ministry in a car bombing and ground assault that left dozens dead.

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According to various reports, the assailants attacked the gate of the ministry first with gunfire and a suicide car-bombing, before breaking into the ministry compound and occupying a hospital within. A brief statement from the ministry said at least 20 people were killed, though many reports suggest the death toll was higher.

The BBC's Shaimaa Khalil reported from the scene that the militants wore Yemeni army uniforms and engaged in a gunfight with government forces throughout the morning. The BBC adds that officials estimated casualties of at least 29 people, with more than 70 injured.

"The attack took place shortly after working hours started at the ministry when a suicide bomber drove a car into the gate," a ministry source said, quoted by Reuters.

The blast was heard hundreds of metres away.

"The explosion was very violent, the whole place shook because of it and plumes of smoke rose from the building," an eyewitness told the agency.

Reuters reports that a Western doctor and a Filipina nurse were among those killed in the attack.

The defense ministry, in a statement, said that "most" of the gunmen had been killed, writes the Associated Press. President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi arrived at the complex later in the day to inspect the scene of the attack and meet with military commanders.

The militants were armed with assault rifles, hand grenades, and rocket-propelled grenades. And while no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, AP writes that it "bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida, whose chapter in Yemen is considered among the world's most active."

Al-Qaida militants are concentrated in the southern and eastern parts of Yemen, but they occasionally strike in the capital. They took advantage of the tenuous security prevailing in 2011 and 2012 during an uprising against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh by seizing territory in the south. The government has since recaptured al-Qaida-held areas....

The United States has been helping Yemen combat the threat of al-Qaida, training Yemeni special forces, supplying them with arms and exchanging intelligence with the Sanaa government.

Reuters notes that Al Qaeda militants have been stepping up targeted attacks against senior Yemeni military personnel. On Sunday gunmen on foot killed an army colonel and his son while their car waited at a traffic light in the town of al-Qatan. Yemeni officials say that since last year, more than 80 soldiers have been killed in such attacks, often involving gunmen on motorcycles.