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Yemen crisis intensifies with factory explosion

SANAA, Yemen — An explosion ripped through crowds of looters in a
munitions factory Monday, killing at least 78 and injuring scores in
the latest sign of weakening government authority amid Yemen’s
two-month-old populist uprising.
STR/
REUTERS

People carry the remains of a victim killed in an explosion at a bullet factory in the southern Yemeni town of Jaar.
The accidental blast came after soldiers abandoned the factory,
allowing the looters to enter — one of a series of incidents in recent
days in which government forces have left their posts. They include
areas in the north, where rebels have long challenged the state’s
authority, and the south, where al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch and
secessionists have confronted government forces for years, according to
Yemeni and opposition officials, diplomats and local news reports.
The spreading instability underscores growing concerns by the United States and its allies that this fragile but strategic
Middle Eastern nation could collapse if its political tensions are not
peacefully resolved. It comes as high-level negotiations between
President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his opponents over a handover of power have stalled in recent days. Saleh declared that he would give no more concessions to the opposition.
He has also publicly warned that Yemen could fall into civil war
if he is forced to leave office prematurely. In an interview Sunday
with al-Arabia television network, he described Yemen as “a time bomb”
and suggested that it could possibly end up as chaotic as Somalia.
Yemen, he said, he could end up divided “in four parts.”
The tensions have grown worse since March 18, when snipers loyal to Saleh fired into crowds
of anti-government protesters, killing at least 52. That triggered a
wave of defections by top military officials, tribal leaders, diplomats
and ministers.
Security forces have grown dramatically in the capital of Sanaa and
in other cities, suggesting that they have been brought from other
areas of the country.
In interviews, opposition leaders cynically
claimed that Saleh, one of the Middle East’s wiliest politicians, was
manipulating the situation for his own political gain. Security forces,
they contended, are not abandoning their positions, but rather are
being systematically pulled out to foment chaos and make Saleh feel
irreplaceable.
“This is the government’s strategy to convey the
message to the international community that if Saleh leaves, he will be
replaced by terrorist groups. This is their last card,” said Yassin
Noman, head of Yemen’s opposition coalition.
Still, Western
diplomats and analysts say there are indications that al-Qaeda, the
northern rebels and southern secessionists appear to be taking
advantage of the political crisis and solidifying their positions.
In
the northern province of Saada, Houthi rebels entered the provincial
capital last week, forcing the governor to flee. A committee comprised
of the rebels, residents and defected military commanders has appointed
Faris Manna, a reputed arms dealer, as the new governor, according to
Yemeni officials, opposition leaders and Western diplomats. Government
officials have also been driven out of Jawf, east of Saada.
In
Marib province, al-Qaeda militants killed seven soldiers in an attack
Sunday, the latest in a series of recent attacks on security forces. In
the south, Islamist militants seized the towns of Jaar and al-Husn in
Abyan province, a known al-Qaeda haven, according to local news
reports. The munitions factory in Monday’s explosion was about three
miles west of Jaar.
One witness told the Associated Press that
the militants took two armored cars, a tank, several pickup trucks
mounted with machine guns and ammunition. Later, large groups of
impoverished people entered the factory to loot anything of value.
“This
accident is a true catastrophe, the first of its kind in Abyan,” said a
doctor at the state-run hospital in Jaar, according to Reuters. “There
are so many burned bodies. I can’t even describe the situation.”
The
deputy governor of Abyan province, Saleh al-Samty, blamed the
government for the explosion, saying it was because of the pullback of
security forces and resulting disorder, according to the Associated
Press.
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