SANAA // A suicide bomber with explosives hidden under his military uniform blew himself up at a military parade rehearsal, killing 96 soldiers and wounding at least 200 others, according to the ministry of defence.
Officials said the attacker was a soldier taking part in the drill in a main square near the presidential palace in the capital.
The bombing appeared to be a failed assassination attempt against the minister of defence, Maj Gen Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, who arrived at the square just minutes before the blast. Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Ali Al Ashwal also was at the scene when the bomber detonated the explosives. Neither officer was hurt.
The government condemned the blast, describing it as ‘terrorist” attack. It said in a statement that the attack demonstrates “a moral and religious perversion of the attackers and plotters”, according to the state Saba news agency.
The attack follows an ambush on Sunday on a US military training team. A US military instructor was wounded in the attack, claimed by the militant group Ansar Al Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), which is affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The same group also claimed responsibility for the parade bombing, saying it was in response to the “crimes” of the security forces, who are fighting to dislodge militants from their strongholds in the south of Yemen.
The attack came as the military has launched an aggressive operation against militants in the south.
It also follows weeks of turmoil in the upper ranks of the military. Yemen’s new president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, has been embroiled in a power struggle with loyalists of ousted leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. Mr Hadi has sacked several of them along with family members from top positions in the armed forces.
The bomber belonged to the Central Security, a paramilitary force commanded by Mr Saleh’s nephew, Yahia, the officials said.
In a statement issued last night, Mr Hadi said terrorists “wanted to turn the joy of our people with the unity day into sorrow .....and therefore, the war on terrorism will continue till it is uprooted and defeated completely whatever the sacrifices are.”
The attack left a scene of carnage, with scores of bleeding soldiers lying on the ground as ambulances rushed to the scene.
“This is a massacre and a heinous crime. I have never seen such a bloody day in my life,” Mohammed Masani, one of the soldiers at the scene, said.
“We were at the end of the practice and getting ready to listen to a speech by the defence minister and the explosion took place,” Mr Masani said.
Soldiers hand-picked by their commanders from different branches of the military have been practicing together for the parade for a week, said Ahmed Sobhi, one of the soldiers who witnessed the explosion. He cited that as evidence that the attacker was a soldier and not an infiltrator.
The site of the attack had been sealed off by Republican Guard forces for the past 24 hours in preparation for the National Day celebrations. No cars or pedestrians were allowed to enter. The Republican Guard is led by Mr Saleh’s son and one-time heir apparent, Ahmed.
The military exercise was a rehearsal for a parade for the celebration of Yemen’s National Day today to recognise the union of Yemen’s north and south on May 22, 1990.
Military hospitals were on high alert to receive the victims as soldiers were called on to donate blood for their colleagues. Some citizens also rushed to hospitals to donate blood.
The blast angered citizens.
“This is really terrible. Where do these people want to lead us? These soldiers have committed no crime but were on a national duty,” said Muhssein Al Majeedi, a resident of Sanaa.
Faris Al Saqqaf, director of Sanaa-based Future Studies Centre, said the attack is an ominous sign for Yemen security.
“The attack shows that the security forces are being penetrated and it happened in a place which is supposed to be the most protective and secured area,” said Mr Al Saqqaf. “The attack also demonstrates the grave outcome of the continuation of the division of the army and security forces.”
He said the bombing not only benefits Al Qaeda but also “those loyalists of the former president who seek to undermine the political transition”.
Khaled Ali, another soldier, told the Associated Press over the phone from the site of the attack that the explosion was followed by heavy gunfire.
“In the mayhem, we were all running in all directions. I saw the guards of the minister surrounding him and forming a human cordon. They were firing in the air,” he said.
Hours after the blast, Mr Hadi fired two security commanders loyal to Mr Saleh, the state media reported.
After the boming yesterday, Mr Hadi fired Brigadier Abdulmalik Al Tayeb, commander of the central security forces, and Brigadier Mohammed Abdullah Al Qawsi, a son-in-law of Mr Saleh, from his post as a commander of a police division.
Brigadier Al Qawsi maintains his position as first deputy of the interior ministry. Mr Hadi also appointed a new deputy for national security.
Mr Hadi in early April fired some of Mr Saleh’s relatives and loyalists from the army but some Saleh relatives defied the decisions for weeks and then gave up after international pressure.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters