SANAA, Yemen — A rehearsal for a military parade to mark Yemen’s national day turned into a scene of bloody carnage Monday when a suicide bomber blew himself up near the presidential palace, killing nearly 100 soldiers and wounding scores more in one of the deadliest attacks in this conflict-wracked nation’s recent history.
Ansar al Shariah, a Yemen-based militant group with links to Al Qaida, took responsibility for the attack, saying in a statement that it was retaliation for an offensive that Yemeni government forces are waging against militants in the country’s restive south.
Witnesses said the bomber wore a military uniform when he exploded himself at Sabain Square, a 10-lane road adjacent to the presidential palace that often serves as the venue for government ceremonies. A number of senior military officials, including Nasser Ahmed, the minister of defense, were at the rehearsal but escaped unharmed.
The bomb hurled body parts in all directions throughout an area 200 feet in diameter, and flecks of human remains could be found hours later, despite attempts by government crews to clean the area. The ceremony that had been scheduled for Tuesday to mark Yemen’s Unity Day, commemorating the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen after years of civil war, was canceled.
Hospitals in the city struggled to treat the wounded, and doctors cautioned that the death toll would continue to rise because of the severity of some of the victims’ injuries.
Monday’s attack punctured the tense calm that had held in the capital since the current president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, took over the office in February from Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose three-decade rule came to an end after months of demonstrations and violence. Many saw it as a direct message to Hadi, who declared when he took office that waging war against Al Qaida was a “religious duty.”
In recent weeks, the Yemeni military, aided by U.S. intelligence and air support, has made significant gains against Ansar al Shariah militants, who took advantage of the months of turmoil surrounding Saleh to seize swaths of territory in Yemen’s southern Abyan province. Notably, Monday’s bombing was the second attack the militants have launched outside their territory in as many days. The group claimed responsibility Sunday for an attack on U.S. military instructors in Hudayda on Yemen’s west coast. A member of the U.S. Coast Guard was wounded.
In a statement, Hadi pledged to continue the fight against Ansar al Shariah. “Our armed forces and security forces will (only) become tougher and more determined,” he said, according to Saba, Yemen’s state news agency, in a message addressed to the families of those killed in the attack.
The White House condemned what it called a “cowardly terrorist attack” and said that John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s terrorism adviser, had called Hadi to offer condolences and assistance in investigating the attack.
Monday’s attack underscores the continuing challenges facing Hadi, who inherited a politically unstable nation on the brink of economic collapse. Some analysts characterized the attack as a sign of Ansar al Shariah’s increasing desperation after a battering by the U.S.-backed military. But it also showed that despite the efforts of the armed forces, the group remains able to strike in the heart of Yemen’s security apparatus.
Sanaa remained at a virtual standstill throughout the day as new checkpoints sprung up across the city. A steady trickle of mourners made their way to the site of the bombing, paying their respects as they struggled to come to terms with an attack that many fear could portend more violence.
“An act like this has no precedence in our country’s history,” Ahmed al Silwi said, staring blankly at the bomb site. “All of Yemen is angry . . . and scared.”
Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.