JIBLA, Yemen -- A gunman slipped past guards at a Southern Baptist hospital and opened fire Friday, killing three American missionaries with shots to the head and wounding another. Officials said he may be part of an Islamic militant cell targeting foreigners and secular-minded politicians in Yemen.
U.S. investigators joined Yemeni authorities in the search for clues in the attack in this Arabian peninsula nation, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden's family and a front line in the U.S. war on terrorism.
The White House said it was too soon to tell if the attack was connected to terror organizations. Many militants, some trained by bin Laden's al-Qaida network, have taken refuge in Yemen, where government control is weak in tribal areas and guns are plentiful.
Anti-American sentiments are running high in the Middle East because of perceived U.S. support for Israel and the standoff with Iraq. Many of the region's predominantly Muslim population also believe the U.S. war on terror is part of a campaign against Islam.
The attacker, identified by Yemeni officials as Abed Abdul Razak Kamel, was arrested after the attack at the 35-year-old Jibla Baptist Hospital, a compound of several one-story, tin-roofed buildings on a hilltop in the southern Yemen town of Jibla.
The gunman entered the compound hiding a semiautomatic rifle under his white robes and black leather jacket to make it resemble a child. He was therefore able to pass a security checkpoint where visitors are supposed to leave their weapons.
He then entered a room where hospital director William E. Koehn was holding a meeting and opened fire, shooting Koehn and two others in the head and killing them instantly, officials said.
Next, he headed to the pharmacy and shot pharmacist Donald W. Caswell in the abdomen. Hospital officials said Caswell was in critical condition.
The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention identified the two others dead as purchasing agent Kathleen A. Gariety, 53, of Wauwatosa, Wis., who arrived in Yemen 10 years ago; and Dr. Martha C. Myers, 57, of Montgomery, Ala., who had worked in Yemen for 24 years. Koehn, 60, of Arlington, Texas, had planned to retire next October after 28 years at the hospital.
Caswell, 49, of Levelland, Texas, has been in Yemen for 18 months and was recovering after surgery, his father, 71-year-old D.C. Caswell, told The Associated Press.
Yemeni authorities said Kamel, the 30-year-old alleged attacker, told interrogators after his arrest that he planned the attack in collaboration with Ali al-Jarallah, who was arrested for allegedly shooting to death a senior Yemeni leftist politician on Saturday, Yemen's official news agency, Saba, said.
Officials said Kamel belonged to a militant cell that may be targeting foreigners and Yemeni public figures who have strayed from the path of Islam in the extremists' eyes. A security official said on condition of anonymity that up to eight others in the cell were being sought.
Abdul Salam Mohammed, a Jibla resident, told AP that Kamel had rented a house near the hospital nearly a month before Monday's attack.
"We didn't see much of him ... as he didn't go out much. I remember he had a long beard and a mustache," Mohammed said. "On Monday morning I saw him without both."
The White House said investigators were trying to determine whether the attack was linked to terrorism. "We strongly condemn and deplore the murder of three American citizens," spokesman Scott McClellan said.
The shooting was the second recent attack on American missionaries in the region. On Nov. 21, a gunman killed an American missionary nurse in the Lebanese city of Sidon. Lebanese authorities have yet to determine who was behind that shooting.
A woman from Jibla who identified herself only as Fatima said Friday's 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.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh -- whose government has cooperated with Washington in the war on terror -- sent a message to President Bush condemning the shooting, which he said would "strengthen our determination to eradicate terrorism," Saba reported.
After the attack, a Yemeni military jeep was posted outside the hospital, with a soldier manning a machinegun mounted on the back. The Southern Baptist missionary board said its 80-bed hospital in Jibla treats more than 40,000 patients a year and its missionaries also teach English to Yemenis.
Jerry Rankin, the board's president, said the organization would continue to operate in Yemen.
Jack Graham, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, called the three victims "martyrs" who were "killed in the line of duty."
Speaking from Plano, Texas, Graham said that aside from providing humanitarian aid, the missionaries were "there because they're Christians and they have no doubt been sharing their faith."
About 30,000 U.S. citizens, most of Yemeni origin, live in the Arab country, the U.S. Embassy said. Ambassador Edmund J. Hull said an evacuation was not planned but that the embassy would help Americans in Jibla leave if they wish.
The embassy urged Americans in Yemen to enhance their security, saying it was requesting additional protection for them.
The State Department has frequently urged Americans to exercise caution in Yemen, an impoverished and factionalized nation that has seen a number of recent attacks thought linked to al-Qaida.
In November, a CIA-operated Predator drone fired a missile that killed bin Laden's top lieutenant in Yemen and five other al-Qaida suspects.
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 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 attacks in the United States.