Yemenis stand near a damaged car at the scene of a bomb blast targeting an army troop carrier at a street leading to two western embassies in Sana’a, Yemen, 09 May 2014. Reports state a bomb blast targeted the Yemeni military’s troop carrier carrying soldiers who were allegedly manning checkpoints in the vicinity of the US and British embassies in Sana’a. Three Yemeni soldiers were injured. EPA Image Credit: EPA

Sana’a: Yemeni security forces killed an Al Qaida commander suspected of masterminding a wave of kidnap attempts targeting Western diplomats in a night-time operation in the capital, a spokesman said on Friday.

The operation came amid a security alert in Sana’a that prompted the closure of the US embassy on Thursday as troops backed by US drones pressed an offensive in the south.

Shayef Mohammad Said Al Shabwani was “one of Al Qaida’s most dangerous and wanted commanders ... suspected of involvement in abductions and killings of Yemeni police and foreigners”, the spokesman told state news agency Saba.

He was stopped in a car close to the presidential palace with four other people, one of whom was also killed in an exchange of fire when they resisted arrest, the spokesman said.

The other three were arrested, two of them wounded, he added.

Security forces have been on high alert in Sana’a since the army launched a highly publicised offensive against Al Qaida in its southern strongholds late last month, drawing open threats of retaliation.

Late Thursday, unidentified assailants opened fire on guards outside the Saudi embassy without hitting anyone, a security source said.

The culprits escaped after the drive-by shooting, the source added.

There has been a wave of kidnap attempts against Western embassy personnel in the capital in recent weeks, some of them deadly.

Also on Thursday, troops entered the town of Azzan, the second largest in Shabwa province, from which Al Shabwani takes his name.

The jihadists had controlled much of Shabwa and hill districts of neighbouring Abyan and Baida provinces since 2011.

Drone strikes killed scores

The ground offensive began on April 29 in mountainous southern and central provinces, where a wave of US drone strikes killed scores of suspected Al Qaida militants last month.

The jihadists took advantage of an Arab Spring-inspired uprising that forced veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh from power to seize large swathes of southern and eastern Yemen.

The army recaptured several major towns in 2012 but has struggled to reassert control in rural areas, despite the backing of militiamen recruited among local tribes.

The American embassy was closed to the public Thursday amid fears of Al Qaida reprisals. It would have been closed anyway Friday, the Muslim day of prayer and rest.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the embassy would be temporarily closed to the public “due to recent attacks against Western interests in Yemen”.

These attacks “and information we have received have given us enough concern to take this precautionary step”, she said in a statement.

On Monday, a Frenchman was killed and another was wounded when gunmen opened fire on their car in Sana’a’s diplomatic district.

Both worked for a private security firm that officials said was guarding the European Union delegation in Yemen.

On Wednesday, Yemeni security forces shot dead the head of a “terror cell” behind Monday’s attack, the country’s supreme security committee said.

Later that day, the interior ministry said it was searching for suspects whose vehicles were involved in recent attacks in Sana’a after “five Al Qaida terrorists” were arrested in several parts of the city.

The suspects had “arms, ammunition, and devices used to carry out terrorist acts” in their possession, it said.