Witnesses describe U.S. officials fatally shooting Yemenis in kidnap attempt

People stand near a damaged car after a French man was shot in San’a on May 5

SAN’A, Yemen—Witnesses to the fatal shootings last month of two Yemenis by American government officials said they saw a Western-looking man pull a gun from his belt and shoot both Yemenis dead during what appeared to be a kidnapping attempt at a barber shop.

The firsthand accounts bear similarities but also what appear to be slight differences with an incident the U.S. State Department revealed Saturday in which it said two U.S. embassy officers killed a pair of armed men who were attempting to kidnap them last month. The U.S. officials have left the country, according to the State Department.

Three Yemeni Interior Ministry officials said Saturday that the incident the U.S. State Department officials are describing is the same as the April 24 killings of the two Yemeni men.

Yemen has seen increasing numbers of attacks and kidnapping attempts on Westerners in the country, which is battling a strengthening, Yemen-based branch of al Qaeda.

Despite frequent kidnappings of Westerners in the capital, what appears to have been an attempted abduction on April 24 outside the Taj barbershop on San’a’s grimy Hadda street stood out for how the intended target reacted, witnesses said.

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The Yemeni Interior Ministry officials said the Yemeni attackers approached the barber shop as one American was inside. Meanwhile, a Western-looking man standing on the sidewalk shot and killed both attackers, two Yemeni shop workers who witnessed the confrontation from an adjoining, glass-fronted store said.

“He didn’t move” from where he was standing while he pulled out a handgun and shot, said one of two Yemeni witnesses of the Westerner who fired. The second witness, in the same shop, gave a similar account.

One of the Yemeni attackers was carrying what witnesses said was a machine gun, the witnesses said. The other carried only an electric stun-gun, witnesses said.

Yemeni newspapers carried photos of one of the dead, a thin man in tribal clothing sprawled in blood along the barber shop’s doorway and the sidewalk.

Yemeni men interviewed earlier this week around the shooting scene said they were alarmed at the surge of attacks in their country and were happy that at least one victim fought back.

“To us he’s a hero, to do that,” said the first witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity for his security. “Yemenis needed that lesson.”

In Pakistan and Iraq, however, such shootings by armed American officials or contractors responding to threats have triggered protests and anger in the country and caused major diplomatic tensions.

Yemen’s defense ministry and witnesses previously had reported the April 24 kidnap attempt on a Westerner outside the barbershop. Yemeni authorities at the time didn’t disclose the nationality of those involved. Official Yemeni accounts also initially mentioned only one foreigner who they said shot the attackers.

The New York Times on Saturday first reported that the intended kidnapping targets were American.

The U.S. State Department, in an email on Saturday, confirmed that Americans were targeted in an attack last month.

“We can confirm that, last month, two U.S. Embassy officers in Yemen fired their weapons after being confronted by armed individuals in an attempted kidnapping at a small commercial business in San’a,” spokeswoman Marie Harf said. “Two of the armed individuals were killed. The Embassy officers are no longer in Yemen.”

State Department and U.S. Embassy officials declined Saturday to provide more details of the shootings.

Shopkeepers surrounding the barbershop said Westerners took away the shop’s barber the day after the shooting. The shop remained closed in early May, when two Wall Street Journal reporters came to speak to shopkeepers at the site.

Yemen is the poorest country on the Arabian peninsula. Attacks by al Qaeda, tribes and criminal gangs have increased since a popular uprising accompanying the region’s Arab Spring uprisings brought a transition government to power in Yemen.

Yemen tribesmen and others, with varying degrees of professionalism, have carried out dozens of kidnappings and attempted kidnappings of Western hostages in the past two years, Western diplomats and others in the capital say.

Diplomats describe some kidnappers selling Western hostages on to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen branch of al Qaeda.

Yemen’s military in late April launched one of its strongest offensive in years against southern bases of al Qaeda and its local allies. Routed from some strongholds by the offensive, al Qaeda threatened in a widely circulated text message last week to take the fight to Yemen’s main cities.

On Tuesday, gunmen shot at three contractors near the European Union embassy, killing one, a French national. The U.S. Embassy said Wednesday it was temporarily shutting services for the public based on what the State Department said was “recent attacks against Western interests and information we have received.”

The State Department declined Saturday to comment on the threat.