18/03/08 (B439) AFP / YEMEN : deux morts (Une fillette et un policier) et 15 blessés à proximité de l’Ambassade US. Two killed in Yemen school blasts near US embassy (Info lecteur – En Anglais)

SANAA (AFP) – A schoolgirl and a policemen were killed in a bomb attack on Tuesday on a girls’ school near the US embassy that Washington says might have been anti-American but Yemeni authorities said was a criminal act.

About 15 children and four policemen were also wounded, a police official told AFP.

"It is a purely criminal incident," the official said, suggesting the attack was not linked to the embassy, located about 500 metres (yards) from the school.

But US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said he thought it was "fairly safe to assume that the embassy was at least a potential target if not the target," when asked whether the attack was directed at the United States.

He said unknown individuals had fired three mortar rounds in the general vicinity of the US embassy.

"While obviously there needs to be an investigation I think the general sense was these things were fired in the general direction of the embassy," he said.

"We also obviously condemn any acts of violence whether directed at us or anyone else."

Washington was also looking to work with Yemeni authorities as they investigate the attack "and hopefully able to locate and bring to justice those responsible for it," Casey added.

The embassy was closed and personnel sent home after the incident, he said.

Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, is awash with weapons, the scene of frequent incidents of violence and the ancestral homeland of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in October 2000 that killed 17 US sailors on the destroyer USS Cole in the southern port of Aden.

And in December 2002, three American doctors were killed and a fourth gravely wounded in an attack by an Islamist extremist at a Baptist hospital in Jibla, south of Sanaa.

Last June, a soldier with "emotional problems" opened fire on oil workers with US firm Occidental Petroleum Corp, killing one and wounding six, including the local American boss.

Foreign tourists have also come under attack in Yemen, which is rich in historical sites.

Two Belgian women tourists were among four people killed, and four more Belgians wounded when suspected Al-Qaeda gunmen opened fire on their bus in the eastern province of Hadramut on January 19.

Last July, seven Spanish tourists and two local drivers were killed when a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into their convoy at an ancient temple.

Yemen in 2007 banned people from bringing weapons into its major cities in a bid to stem crime and violence in a country with one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world.

Owning a gun has long been seen as an essential part of the culture in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state, which has an estimated 60 million firearms in private hands — roughly three for every citizen.

Two students were killed and 24 wounded last month when a man threw a hand grenade in a restaurant at Sanaa university, in an attack that was linked to a family dispute.

Also in the same month, a Yemeni killed four of his brothers before turning his gun on himself after a row over a plot of land.