SANAA, Yemen — A suicide bomber targeted soldiers rehearsing Monday for a military parade here, killing as many as 112 people and signaling that Islamic extremists may be shifting their focus to Yemen’s capital after weeks of intense battles in outlying provinces with U.S.-backed government forces.
Al-Qaida affiliate Ansar al-Shariah claimed responsibility for the bombing in retaliation for American-assisted government offensives against its strongholds in southern Yemen. Unnerved by increased U.S. military and drone strikes, the militants struck directly at the heart of the new and fragile government of President Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The attack, in which at least 300 more people were injured, was the bloodiest in the capital in years and came a day after gunmen fired on a car carrying three U.S. civilian contractors training the Yemen coast guard in the Red Sea port of Hodeida. The Pentagon said the trio sustained minor injuries.
Washington has stepped up military involvement in this battered Arab nation, dispatching at least 20 Special Operations soldiers to provide satellite images and intelligence for strikes against extremists. But lawless mountains and deserts controlled by tribes have become a rugged redoubt for hundreds of Islamist fighters at the crossroads of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.
The attack on Sanaa revealed how easily militants can maneuver and exploit the nation’s relentless turmoil. Officials said an assailant dressed in an army uniform detonated a concealed bomb while troops drilled for a national day parade scheduled for Tuesday. Bodies and fallen rifles were scattered across al-Sabin Square and four city hospitals were overwhelmed with the dead and wounded.
Yemeni Defense Minister Nasser Ahmed — who may have been targeted for assassination — was in the square near the presidential palace to inspect the troops but was not hurt. Gunfire erupted after the blast and authorities said two more people wearing explosives belts were arrested.
“Blood and body parts covered the square. It was hideous,” said one soldier who asked not to be named. “The image will stay with me all my life.”
Hadi responded by firing two top commanders, including the nephew of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was Deputy Director of National Security. In an address to a stunned nation Monday night, Hadi said that the “war against terror will continue until terror is uprooted and terminated, regardless of the sacrifices. … We are determined to clear Yemen of extremists and free ourselves to face our economic and development challenges.”
The bombing came days after Yemeni forces launched major operations against militants linked to Ansar al-Shariah and al-Qaida in the Arabia Peninsula. Authorities said 19 soldiers and 33 militants were killed in weekend clashes in the south. Earlier this month, a U.S. drone strike killed Fahd Mohammed Ahmed Quso, an al-Qaida operative believed to have plotted the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 that killed 17 American sailors.
The militants had promised on their website site to retaliate, calling their strategy a “flowing river” that will sweep across the impoverished country. Much of the al-Qaida affiliate’s focus has been in the south, including Abyan province, where police stations have been overrun, officials assassinated and towns seized. The tactics have frustrated an underpaid, ill-equipped army that has been manipulated by political forces.
Islamic militants have rattled the government since the day of Hadi’s inauguration in February when a suicide bomber killed at least 25 people, mostly soldiers, at a presidential palace. Washington fears increased efforts by Yemeni extremists to attack U.S. targets similar to the failed plots in 2009 and this month to blow up airliners over Western skies.
The nation is also rife with intrigue. Saleh ruled for 33 years and his authoritarian approach has been blamed for much of the country’s instability. His negotiated departure this year after months of uprisings left his political machine in place. Hadi is attempting to keep Saleh at bay while dealing with poverty, power shortages and international pressure to defeat militants.
Al-Qaida had largely ignored Sanaa until now. If Monday’s bombing is a precursor to further attacks, it would further threaten security in a capital already chafed by tribal conflicts, northern-based rebels and divisions within the armed forces, including a military unit in the Central Security Organization led by another of Saleh’s nephews. Officials worry the ancient city could descend into a battle zone that would spark a civil war.
Staff writer Ken Dilanian in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
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