The defense ministry said the attack targeted the ministry's
hospital and most of the gunmen had been killed or wounded.
"The attackers have exploited some construction work there to carry
out this criminal act ... the situation is under control," the
ministry said in a statement on its website.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack. But the U.S.-allied
country has been grappling with a security threat by al Qaeda-linked
militants, who have repeatedly attacked government officials and
installations over the past two years.
Witnesses said the explosion shook the compound in the old district
of Sanaa, where the country's central bank is also located.
"The attack took place shortly after working hours started at the
ministry, when a suicide bomber drove a car into the gate," the
defense ministry source said.
"The explosion was very violent, the whole place shook because of it
and plumes of smoke rose from the building," an employee who works
in a nearby building told Reuters.
Ambulance sirens and gunshots were heard after the blast as soldiers
exchanged fire with the gunmen, said to have been disguised in
Yemeni army uniforms, who had stormed the compound.
A military source said that at least 20 people, including militants,
were killed in the attack and dozens were wounded. The Yemeni health
ministry appealed to citizens to donate blood to help save the
At least two sources inside the defense ministry said the attackers
came in two vehicles. One was driven by a suicide bomber who
attacked the gate of the compound, while armed men entered the
compound in the second, the sources said. The ministry statement
made no reference to a suicide attacker.
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Violence is common in Yemen, where an interim government is
grappling with southern secessionists, al Qaeda-linked militants and
northern Houthi rebels, as well as severe economic problems
inherited from veteran President Ali Abdallah Saleh who was forced
out of office in 2011.
The insurgents were emboldened by a decline in government control
over the country during protests that eventually ousted Saleh. They
seized several southern cities before being driven out in 2012.
Al Qaeda militants have killed hundreds of Yemeni soldiers and
members of the security forces in a series of attacks since an
offensive, which the United States has supported with intelligence
and drones, drove them out of their strongholds.
In July last year, an al Qaeda suicide bomber wearing a Yemeni army
uniform killed more than 90 people rehearsing for a military parade
in Sanaa. Al Qaeda later claimed responsibility for the attack.
Yemen's defense minister, Major General Muhammad Nasir Ahmad,
escaped a car bomb on his motorcade in September 2012 that killed at
least 12 other people.
(Reporting by Mohammad Ghobari; Writing by Maha El Dahan and Sami
Aboudi; Editing by Rania El Gamal, Patrick Graham and Sonya