By Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA (Reuters) - Gunmen shot dead a Frenchman working as a security agent for the EU mission in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Monday, France announced, as the army waged an offensive against al Qaeda in the south of the country.
Westerners have frequently been attacked in Yemen, an impoverished U.S.-allied country fighting Islamist militancy, southern secessionists, tribal conflicts and a Shi'ite Muslim rebellion in the north.
Yemen's Interior Ministry confirmed Monday's attack, but said only that a "foreigner" had been killed in the capital and two other people wounded in the shooting.
"The president condemns in the strongest terms the attack today in Sanaa, Yemen against two of our countrymen, which cost one his life and very seriously injured the second," French President Francois Hollande's office said in a statement.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius added the victim was "on mission for the European Union delegation in Yemen."
The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called the killing "evil and senseless" and urged the Yemeni government to restore security in the country.
"The EU's presence in Yemen aims only to assist the country in its transition to democracy and in its economic development. To target persons engaged in this effort is evil and senseless," she said in a statement.
Yemeni security sources said the unidentified gunmen, who had been driving a four-by-four car without license plates, blocked the diplomatic vehicle in which the Frenchman was travelling in the center of Sanaa and opened fire.
They identified the wounded as a Frenchman and a Yemeni. No further details were immediately available and there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
Last month a German diplomat was wounded during an apparent kidnapping attempt by unidentified gunmen.
FRANCE IS TARGET
Yemen is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which authorities have blamed for a string of attacks on security forces and foreigners in the country of 25 million people, which shares a long border with the world's top oil exporter, Saudi Arabia.
Last week the Yemeni army launched an offensive to drive al Qaeda and its allies out of their strongholds in two southern provinces. That came after a series of air strikes, believed led by U.S. drones, that killed some 65 militants last month.
Yemen, under President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, is trying to overcome nearly three years of political turmoil which began when protests erupted in 2011 against President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33 years in office. He has since stepped down.
In April 2013, a gunman fired shots outside France's embassy in Yemen, prompting local authorities to reinforce security around the mission. Since France ousted Islamist militants from Mali last year, groups linked to them have vowed to target French interests overseas.
Last summer several western embassies, including the American, British and French, closed their embassies in Yemen after a U.S. warning of a possible militant attack in the region.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; writing by Yara Bayoumy and Rania El Gamal; editing by Sami Aboudi and Tom Heneghan)