Middle East

Suicide blast kills dozens of rebel supporters in Yemen

Shiite Houthi rebels carry a wounded man at the scene of a suicide attack in Sanaa October 9, 2014. (REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah)

SANAA: At least 43 people were killed when a powerful suicide bombing ripped through the Yemeni capital Thursday, plunging the violence-plagued state into further turmoil after weeks of political deadlock.

Dozens more were wounded in the attack in Sanaa's Al-Tahrir square, which targeted a gathering for supporters of Shiite insurgents who overran the capital last month.

A separate suicide attack killed 20 Yemeni soldiers in the country's southeast in a car bombing suspected of having been carried out by Al-Qaeda, a military source told AFP.

Yemen has been wracked by political turmoil and sporadic violence since the 2012 toppling of strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, with rebels and militants battling to exploit a power vacuum and seize control of territory.

The bombing in Sanaa came a day after Yemen's new prime minister designate, named as part of a UN-brokered peace deal, refused the post amid fierce rebel opposition.

Witnesses said a suicide bomber detonated an explosive belt at a checkpoint at the entrance to the protest gathering, adding that steel balls were seen strewn at the scene of the blast.

An AFP photographer saw the lifeless bodies of four children among the victims.

Medics at the nearby Police Hospital issued an urgent plea for more doctors to deal with the number of casualties.

Supporters of the rebels, known as Houthis, gathered after the blast -- the largest in Sanaa since May 2012 -- demanding the fall of beleaguered President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.

The Houthis, who are also referred to as Ansarullah, swept into the capital on September 21 after fierce battles with forces allied to the government in Sanaa that left more than 270 dead.

A UN-brokered peace accord, which called for a rebel withdrawal from Sanaa and the naming of a neutral premier, was struck the same day.

But the Houthis have dug their heels in, refusing to support Hadi's choice for prime minister and demanding a greater role in decision making as well as political and economic reform.

In addition to the Houthis swooping south from their Saada stronghold in the north, the authorities have also had to deal with southern secessionist aspirations and a bloody campaign by the country's Al-Qaeda franchise.

The 20 Yemeni soldiers were killed on Thursday when a suspected Al-Qaeda operative detonated his explosives-laden car at an army post on the western outskirts of the southern city of Mukalla, a military official said.

A tank and two army vehicles were destroyed in the blast, the official added.

On Wednesday, suspected Al-Qaeda militants launched a wave of dawn attacks on police and the army in another central town, killing 10 policemen.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is considered by the United States to be the global jihadist network's most dangerous branch and its attacks against security installations across the country have challenged Yemen's longtime role as an effective ally in Washington's fight against extremists.

Its proximity to oil-rich Saudi Arabia and key shipping routes in the Gulf of Aden have also raised fears that it could become a failed state similar to Somalia.

Yemen remains in political deadlock after Hadi infuriated the rebels in Sanaa earlier this week by naming his chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, as prime minister as part of the U.N.'s reconciliation accord.

Under Houthi pressure, Hadi accepted bin Mubarak's "request to be relieved" of forming a new government, Saba state news agency said.

Bin Mubarak took his decision "in a bid to preserve the national unity and protect the country from divisions," Saba said citing a letter sent by the PM-designate to Hadi.

In a statement on Wednesday the rebels said bin Mubarak's appointment had been "against the will of the nation" and "at the behest of outside forces," an apparent reference to U.S. and Saudi influence.

Rebel leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi had reportedly called late Wednesday for protests in Sanaa against the appointment.

Since storming into Sanaa, the Houthis have been tightening their grip on the city while also looking to expand their control eastwards to oilfields and to the strategic southwestern strait of Bab el-Mandab.

Foes of the Houthi rebels -- who hail from the minority Zaidi Shiite community in Sunni-dominated Yemen -- accuse them of taking orders from Iran and groups behind the 2011 uprising which ousted Saleh have protested their presence in Sanaa.

Al-Tahrir, or "Freedom" square, where Thursday's blast hit Houthi supporters, was the crucible of the rebellion that ended decades of authoritarian rule.

 

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