Suspected Islamic militant kills three American missionaries in Yemen

Yemeni officials believe the gunman who killed three American Southern Baptist missionaries and critically wounded another on Monday was connected to a cell that is planning attacks on foreigners and secular-minded politicians in this lawless Arabian peninsula state.

Officials and eyewitnesses said the gunman entered the 35-year-old Jibla Baptist Hospital, which sits on a hilltop amid trees in the southern Yemen town of Jibla, hiding a semiautomatic rifle under the white robes and black leather jacket he wore to make it resemble a child. He slipped past a security check where visitors are supposed to leave their weapons.

Yemeni authorities identified the killer as Abed Abdul Razak Kamel, claiming that he belonged to a militant cell that may be targeting foreigners and secular-minded Yemeni politicians and public figures.

Yemen's official news agency, Saba, quoted an official as saying the assailant told interrogators that he plotted Monday's attack in collaboration with Ali al-Jarallah, described by Yemeni officials as a Muslim extremist and member of Yemen's fundamentalist Islamic Reform Party, who was arrested for shooting dead a senior Yemeni leftist politician on Saturday.

The attacker entered a room where hospital director William E. Koehn was holding a meeting and opened fire, the Virginia-based Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board said in a statement obtained by The Associated Press.

The gunman shot three victims in the head, killing them each instantly, before heading to the pharmacy and shooting pharmacist Donald W. Caswell in the abdomen. Hospital officials said he was in a critical condition.

The Southern Baptist International Mission Board identified the dead as Koehn, 60, of Arlington, Texas, who had planned to retire in October after 28 years at the hospital; purchasing agent Kathleen A. Gariety, 53, of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, who arrived in Yemen 10 years ago; and Dr. Martha C. Myers, 57, of Montgomery, Alabama, who worked in Yemen for 24 years.

Caswell, 49, of Levelland, Texas, had been in Yemen for 18 months and was recovering after surgery, his father, 71-year-old D.C. Caswell, told the AP.

The White House deplored the killing of the missionaries in Yemen, saying investigators were trying to determine whether the attack was linked to terrorism.

"We strongly condemn and deplore the murder of three American citizens who were providing humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters while President George W. Bush vacationed at his nearby ranch in Crawford, Texas.

McClellan did say the killings "underscore the dangerous world we live in."

The shooting was the second recent attack on American missionaries in the region. On Nov. 21, a gunman shot and killed an American missionary nurse in the Lebanese city of Sidon. Lebanese authorities have yet to determine who was behind that shooting.

Anti-American sentiments are running high in the Middle East due to the perceived U.S. support for Israel and the standoff with Iraq. Many of the region's predominant Muslim population also believe the U.S. policy following the Sept. 11 attacks to be a part of a campaign against Islam.

Abdul Salam Mohammed, a Jibla resident, told The Associated Press that the alleged assailant, Kamel, had rented a house near the hospital nearly a month before Monday's attack.

"We didn't see much of him during his stay in town as he didn't use to go out much. I remember he had a long beard and a mustache," Mohammed said of the attacker. "On Monday morning I saw him without both."

A woman from Jibla who identified herself only as Fatima said the attack was "a crime unacceptable in any religion. This contradicts Islam."

"They cared for us and looked after us. I can't even count the number of children they treated and saved," she said.

Yemen's president condemned the shootings as "criminal and disgraceful" and pledged to punish the perpetrators.

"We are confident that such a criminal act won't affect the friendship and cooperation between our countries ... but instead strengthen our determination to eradicate terrorism," Saba quoted Ali Abdullah Saleh as saying in a message to his American counterpart.

Americans have been repeatedly warned to take security precautions in Yemen, a country where central government authority is weak, guns are plentiful and Muslim militants have found refuge. Yemen, the ancestral homeland of terror chief Osama bin Laden, has been a key front in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

U.S. Ambassador Edmund J. Hull said U.S. officials did not envision a general evacuation, but "we will assist American citizens in Jibla if they wish to leave" Yemen.

In a statement, the embassy also asked Americans in Yemen to enhance their security, saying it was requesting additional protection for them.

About 30,000 U.S. citizens, most of Yemeni origin, live in the Arab country, the U.S. Embassy said.

Hull said U.S. consular staff, security personnel and investigators were sent to Jibla, 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, San`a. He said America and Yemen had "a good working relationship and U.S. investigators would be assisting" their Yemeni counterparts.

U.S. investigators have already begun questioning hospital staff about the incident, according to a Yemeni security official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Mission Board president Jerry Rankin said his organization would continue to operate in Yemen as long as the government allows.

"The man brought in a rifle under his coat as if cradling a baby bringing him into the clinic," Rankin told reporters in Richmond.

He said there had been past threats against missionaries, but would not elaborate. "They are taken seriously," he said. "It goes with being a Christian missionary now, but also with being an American that we would be susceptible to threats in many places in the world."

The Southern Baptist missionary board said its 80-bed Jibla hospital treats more than 40,000 patients annually, providing care free to those who cannot afford it. Its missionaries also taught English and clinical skills at a nearby nursing school.

Impoverished, factionalized, predominantly Muslim Yemen has for years been a haven for Muslim extremists. Bin Laden enlisted thousands of Yemenis to fight alongside the mujahedeen of Afghanistan in their U.S.-backed war against an occupation Soviet army in the 1980s. Many returned when the Soviets withdrew, and they are a powerful political force here.

On Oct. 6, an explosives-laden boat rammed a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, killing one member of the tanker's crew. U.S. intelligence officials suspect al-Qaida in the attack.

In a similar attack in October 2000, a suicide bomb boat hit the USS Cole in the southern port of Aden, killing 17 sailors in an attack blamed on al-Qaida. Al-Qaida also is held responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Yemen has signed on as Washington's partner in the war on terrorism launched after the Sept. 11 attacks.