By Mohammed Mukhashaf
ADEN (Reuters) - Six soldiers and three suspected Islamist militants died during a suicide bombing and assault on the main military headquarters in Aden on Wednesday and a 10-year-old boy was killed in subsequent clashes, medics and local media said.
The attack on the army headquarters bore the hallmarks of previous assaults by al Qaeda on military facilities, including an attack on the Defence Ministry compound in Sanaa in December and an earlier one on the headquarters of the Second Division in Hadramout province.
State news agency Saba quoted a security source in the city as saying al Qaeda militants tried to storm the army's Fourth Division headquarters in Aden's al-Tawahi district after detonating a car laden with explosives outside the main gate.
The Fourth Division is in charge of the military in southern Yemen.
A medical source at a nearby military hospital told Reuters that the bodies of six soldiers were brought into the facility after the incident.
Aden al-Ghad, a local newspaper close to southern separatists, said on its website that at least three of the attackers also died during the raid.
Witnesses and Aden al-Ghad said a 10-year-old boy was killed and four civilians were wounded by shrapnel from a shell that had missed its target during subsequent clashes between the army and the militants, who apparently were still holding out in the area.
Tawahi houses some of the country's main state facilities in Aden, including the presidential palace, the local secret service offices and the local radio and television studios.
Witnesses in Tawahi said they had heard the sounds of rocket propelled grenades as soldiers closed off roads to the area and engaged the attackers.
Yemen, a Western-allied country that shares a border with top global oil exporter Saudi Arabia, has been in turmoil since mass protests forced long-term leader Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in 2012. His successor, Abd-Rabbu Mansour, Hadi has been struggling to restore order.
The security source told Saba that Wednesday's attack had been foiled at the gate of the army headquarters and troops were hunting militants who had arrived in a separate vehicle to engage soldiers after the suicide attack.
"The security guarding the Fourth Division headquarters in Aden foiled a suicide attack carried out by terrorist elements of al Qaeda who had detonated a booby-trapped car at the main gate of the Division's headquarters," Saba quoted the source as saying.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is one of the most active branches of the network founded by Osama bin Laden and militants have plotted attacks against international airlines from there.
On Tuesday, two Yemeni soldiers and two al Qaeda militants were killed during a clash in the western al-Hudaida province, the Interior Ministry said on its website.
The website, quoting a source at the ministry, said that the clash broke out when militants tried to free four of their comrades who had been seized in a raid by security forces on their hideout earlier in the day.
Saba later identified two of the captured militants as being Saudi citizens.
AQAP, reinforced by Saudi militants who had gained battle experience in Syria and Iraq, has staged a series of spectacular attacks on the Yemeni army since 2011.
In December last year, at least 52 people including foreign medical staff were killed when a suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives into a gate of the Defence Ministry in Sanaa, paving the way for gunmen in another vehicle to storm the compound.
In September last year, dozens of militants stormed the headquarters of the army's Second Division in al-Mukalla, the provincial capital of the southeastern Hadramout province, taking some military personnel hostage before the army retook the facility.
Last month, suspected militants killed 20 members of Yemen's security forces in a dawn raid on a checkpoint located some 120 kms (75 miles) east of al-Mukalla.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Angus McDowall/Alison Williams/Susan Fenton)