The attack highlights the challenges faced by the country's new leadership as it struggles to bring security to the impoverished Arab nation in the face of continued al-Qaeda strikes despite U.S.-backed efforts to drive it from the country.
The attack on the coastal military base in Abyan province comes a day after suspected U.S. drone strikes killed at least seven al-Qaida-linked militants in the same area. It also follows a recent visit to Abyan by Yemen's Defense Minister Gen. Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, which was meant to highlight the military's strength in a province where the group last year controlled entire cities and towns.
Yemeni troops backed by U.S. airpower and advisers drove militants out of southern cities and into mountain refuges in June. The fighters had seized large swaths of territory in Abyan during a security vacuum left by last year's uprising against the country's longtime authoritarian leader, gaining thousands of firearms as well as tanks and armored vehicles in raids on arms depots and barracks.
Washington considers al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni branch of the network is known, to be the group's most dangerous offshoot, which it holds responsible for several failed attacks on U.S. territory.
Yemeni military officials said Friday's attack started when four suspected al-Qaida militants riding an army truck approached the base and fired on its guards, killing two. Three of the men then got out of the Toyota pick-up and began shooting at soldiers awakened by the sound of gunfire, the officials added. The fourth gunman drove the explosives-laden truck into a group of soldiers and blew it up in a suicide attack. Soldiers killed the other three attackers, whose suicide vests detonated in the shootout.
The commander of the military police on the base was among those killed in the attack, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.
The officials said the men had been targeting the head of the army base, who was not hurt in the attack.
Security officials say they believe the group has a hit list of officials, and wants to paralyze the new government that came to power this year. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was the fourth ruler to fall in the Arab Spring wave of revolts in the Mideast, stepping down in the face of protests after more than three decades in power. Adding to the volatility, there has been constant friction between Saleh's supporters and his former deputy who is now president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Since the new government's offensive drove al-Qaida from towns, militants have sought refuge in southern mountain areas and have retaliated with assassinations of top security officials as well as deadly suicide bombings targeting the military and civilian militias working alongside the army.
One of the worst attacks took place May 21 when a suicide bomber -- who turned out to be a son of a colonel-- blew himself up in the middle of a military rehearsal in the capital, Sanaa, killing around 100 soldiers. A month later, an al-Qaida suicide bomber detonated his explosives among a crowd of Yemeni police cadets, killing at least 10.
In March, al-Qaida militants launched a surprise pre-dawn attack on a southern base while troops slept, killing 185 troops and capturing 73. The fighters sprayed tents where soldiers had been sleeping with gunfire. They dumped their bodies in the desert, some beheaded, and paraded dozens of captured soldiers through a nearby town.