A powerful blast at an ammunition factory in southern Yemen left more than 100 people dead yesterday after forces loyal to the embattled President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, appeared to have been driven out of the area by Islamist militants.
The explosion came as talks to broker an end to the 32-year authoritarian rule of President Saleh stalled amid continued warnings that the country was sliding into armed conflict. After weeks of protests against his rule, President Saleh has claimed that if he left power al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) could begin to take hold throughout the country with Yemen a "time bomb" nearing civil war.
The accident yesterday appeared to have been triggered by a lit cigarette, according to local sources, as residents picked over the remains after several dozen armed and hooded men looted the factory and made off with cases of weaponry. The state news agency claimed AQAP was responsible for the blast at the plant, just outside the city of Jaar in the province of Abyan.
"The incident happened after al-Qa'ida terrorist elements seized the factory on Sunday and pushed citizens to it for looting its contents, which led to inflaming of gunpowder and explosives in the factory," according to the Saba state news agency.
One doctor at the state-run hospital in Jaar said: "This accident is a true catastrophe, the first of its kind in Abyan. There are so many burned bodies. I can't even describe the situation."
A government spokesman said that the raid was carried out by the reformed Aden-Abyan Army, a paramilitary organisation founded by a senior al-Qa'ida figure.
AQAP was positioning itself throughout Yemen in preparation for mounting attacks against the military, taking advantage of social and political unrest, he said.
Yemen analyst Gregory Johnsen said: "AQAP and other militant groups are able to move around much more freely and there is concern that they will be able to acquire weapons and money from abandoned posts."
Political sources in Yemen said a deal would probably involve the resignations of both President Saleh and a main rival, General Ali Mohsin, who has sent troops to protect the protesters.
The sons and close relatives of the president would also leave their positions, but the government side wants guarantees that they would not be pursued legally. It was not immediately clear if they would stay in Yemen, but that was an option.