Diplomats attacked in Yemen

Violence, unfortunately, is part of the daily scene in Yemen and most attacks go unreported beyond the local press. When westerners are the target, though, there's more interest – as we saw yesterday.

A vehicle carrying five British embassy staff, including the deputy ambassador, came under attack – apparently from a rocket-propelled grenade – as it travelled to the embassy in Sana'a yesterday morning. One person in the vehicle was slightly injuredand two bystanders were wounded by shrapnel. Two people were seen running away.

In the second incident of the day, a Frenchman employed by an engineering company was shot dead at his workplace in Sana'a.

Some news reports have combined these two incidents, giving the impression that they might be in some way connected. However, the killing of the Frenchman seems unrelated to terrorism. The NewsYemen website says he was shot by one of the company's guards following a dispute with him the previous day. The guard has reportedly been arrested.

Yesterday's attack on the embassy vehicle was the second in recent months. On April 26, a suicide bomber attacked the British ambassador's convoy. The ambassador was unhurt, though three passers-by were injured. (In July, there was also a reported attack on the British embassy though the embassy promptly denied this, saying it was merely an altercation between two Yemeni guards in which shots were fired.)

Two attacks on British diplomats travelling in Sanaa less than six months apart raise the question: why Britain?

Writing for the BBC website, Ginny Hill (a Yemen expert at Chatham House) offers some suggestions.

One is opportunity. The British ambassador has to travel across town by car from his residence to the embassy every day, as do other staff. The US ambassador, however, lives in the embassy compound – which makes him less vulnerable to attacks on predictable journeys.

The British embassy itself is a more difficult target than travelling diplomats, even those using armour-plated cars. The current 
embassy building in Sana'a was constructed about three years ago with security very much in mind. It was the first to be built following a security review of British embassies worldwide (and, incidentally, it won an architectural award).

As far as motives are concerned, apart from hostility to Britain's role as America's closest ally, "British military trainers have been working closely with the Yemeni government for several years, supporting both the coastguard and the counter-terrorism unit," Hill writes.

In addition to that, Britain has a central role in the international Friends of Yemen group which was set up in January to coordinate aid and promote security. Its initial meeting was convened in London by Gordon Brown, the British prime minister at the time.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 October 2010.