Multiple suicide bombings claimed by the Islamic State group killed at least 142 people yesterday at Shiite mosques in Yemen's capital - one of the strife-torn country's deadliest ever jihadist attacks. The killings were the first claimed by IS in Yemen and represent a strong show of force by the group in a country where rival Al-Qaeda is the most prominent jihadist organization. Charred bodies and pools of blood were seen at the scene of the blasts, which targeted supporters of the Houthi Shiite militia that has seized control of the capital Sanaa.
Worshippers rushed the wounded to hospitals in pick-up trucks, while others evacuated mutilated bodies. One suicide bomber struck inside Badr mosque in southern Sanaa while another targeted worshippers as they fled outside, witnesses said. A third suicide bomber targeted Al-Hashush mosque in northern Sanaa, while a fourth struck outside the mosque, according to the Saba news agency, which is now controlled by the Houthis.
Nashwan Al-Atab, a member of the health ministry's operations committee, told AFP that 142 people were killed and at least 351 were wounded. Houthi TV said hospitals had made urgent appeals for blood donations. The imam of the Badr mosque was among the dead, a medical source said. Another suicide bomber blew himself up outside a mosque in the northern Houthi stronghold of Saada, a source close to the militia said. Only the assailant was killed in that explosion, and tight security at the mosque prevented the bomber from going inside, the source added.
In an online statement, the Sanaa branch of IS said the attacks were "just the tip of the iceberg". "Infidel Houthis should know that the soldiers of the Islamic State will not rest until they eradicate them... and cut off the arm of the Safavid (Iranian) plan in Yemen," the statement said. The Houthis are accused of receiving support from Iran. IS, a radical Sunni organization, considers Shiites to be heretics. The Houthis overran Sanaa in September and have since tightened their grip on power. Their attempts to extend their control into other areas have been met by deadly resistance from Sunni tribes and Al-Qaeda, which is the target of a long-standing US drone strike campaign.
The United States condemned the mosque bombings but said it could not confirm the veracity of the IS claim of responsibility. "We deplore the brutality of the terrorists who perpetrated today's unprovoked attack on Yemeni citizens, who were peacefully engaged in Friday prayers," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. But there is not, as yet, a "clear operational" link between Yemeni extremists and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, he added.
Yemen has descended into chaos since the 2012 ouster of longtime strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been accused of backing the Houthis. Yesterday's blasts came a day after clashes between forces loyal to President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and those allied with the Houthis in the southern city of Aden. Since fleeing to Aden last month, President Hadi has been struggling to reassert his authority, and violence has erupted there in recent days between forces loyal to him and to the Houthis.
A security official said yesterday a top Yemeni officer linked to the Houthis had escaped an assassination bid near Aden overnight. Four people were killed in an ambush on the Lahj-Taiz road, but General Abdel Hafedh Al-Sakkaf, the special forces chief in Aden, escaped unharmed, said the official from Lahj. The attack came as Hadi loyalists tightened their control over Aden, where the situation was calm early yesterday. Hadi had to evacuate a presidential palace in Aden on Thursday after a fighter jet opened fire, hitting a nearby hill.
Separately, 11 people were killed Thursday when special forces fighters loyal to the Houthis tried to seize control of Aden's airport from Hadi loyalists, in fighting that forced its closure. The airport reopened yesterday with a flight to Sanaa. In other unrest, five people - three gunmen and two policemen - were killed as southern separatists attacked police centres in Lahj, a security official said.