By Mohammed Mukhashaf
ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Suspected militants killed 20 members of Yemen's security forces in a dawn raid on a checkpoint on Monday, state news agency Saba said, in an attack officials said bore the hallmarks of the local branch of al Qaeda.
Yemen is dogged by internal conflicts and chronic poverty and Monday's attack highlighted the lack of stability in the Western-allied country, which shares a border with top global oil exporter Saudi Arabia and lies next to major shipping lanes.
The Yemeni interior minister suspended senior security officials in the eastern province of Hadramout where the attack took place and ordered an immediate investigation, Saba said.
A local official said the troops, who belonged to a paramilitary unit under the Interior Ministry, were mostly asleep when the raiders attacked the checkpoint, located some 120 kms (75 miles) east of the provincial capital al-Mukalla.
"A terrorist attack, involving four armed vehicles, surprised a security checkpoint ... resulting in 20 members of the special security forces being martyred," Saba quoted a security source as saying.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, in which Saba said one person was also wounded. A security source in the capital Sanaa said two members of the security forces had been seized and taken away by the militants.
AL QAEDA ACTIVE
Yemeni officials said the attack appeared to be the work of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the most active branches of the militant global al Qaeda network.
The last major AQAP attack targeted the central prison in Sanaa on February 14, when gunmen killed 11 people, including seven security guards.
Yemen, which has been in turmoil since mass protests forced out President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 after more than three decades in power, is also battling southern separatists and northern rebels.
Interior Minister Abdou Hussein al-Tarb, appointed this month in a cabinet reshuffle, suspended the Hadramout security chief, the local commander of the special security forces and the checkpoint commander, pending an investigation, Saba said.
The Yemeni army, with U.S. backing, drove AQAP militants and their allies from some of their southern strongholds in 2012 but the insurgents have since regrouped and mounted attacks on government officials and installations. AQAP has also plotted attacks against international airlines from Yemen.
Maintaining stability in Yemen, an impoverished country of 25 million, is a priority for Washington and Gulf states because of its geographic location.
The United States often targets suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen with drone strikes. Human rights groups have condemned such attacks, saying they can miss their targets and hit civilians.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa; Writing by Maha El Dahan; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Gareth Jones)