SANAA, Yemen May 21, 2012 -- An al Qaeda affiliate has claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed at least 90 soldiers and injured hundreds more in Yemen's capital city today, on the eve of the nation's unification holiday.
Yemeni officials suspect a suicide bomber dressed in a military uniform set off the explosives during a large military parade rehearsal in Sanaa's Sabeen Square, according to Mohammad Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in the America. Yemen's defense ministry said that, at latest count, 90 soldiers had been killed, but the death toll could continue to rise.
A spokesperson for the al Qaeda offshoot Ansar al-Sharia claimed responsibility for the attack, saying in a phone call to ABC News that the bombing was retaliation for the Yemeni army's attacks and U.S. drone strikes in the southern part of the country. It was meant as a message to the Americans and the "tools of the Americans" who were targeting the "mujahedeen," meaning holy warriors, the spokesperson said.
After the bombing, body parts were strewn in the square and one eyewitness told ABC News he had seen a soldier who was blown apart before his eyes. Felt berets worn by the soldiers were scattered among the carnage before survivors began slowly picking them up and stacking them beneath a nearby tree.
Albasha said that some high-level military officials were present at the parade rehearsal, but managed to escape unscathed.
The Yemeni government, with the help of the U.S., has been locked in fierce fighting with al Qaeda-linked militants who occupy strongholds in the south. Last week, Yemeni officials said a military campaign in the south intensified on at least four different fronts, according to a report by The Associated Press. Just two days before that, a U.S. drone strike reportedly took out 11 al Qaeda militants.
Southern Yemen is home to the al Qaeda affiliate al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which top U.S. counterterrorism officials have called one of the greatest threats to U.S. national security. It was there, officials said, that militants hatched a plot earlier this month to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner with an updated version of the infamous "underwear bomb" that was part of the failed 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot. The new plot was thwarted by a Western source who managed to infiltrate the terror group.
Speaking of today's bombing, the U.S. State Department said in a statement, "This cowardly attack highlights the lengths to which al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will go to wreak havoc in Yemen and abroad."