CAIRO - Yemeni officials said a suicide bomber has killed at least 96 soldiers and wounded more than 200 during a military parade rehearsal in the capital Sana'a.
Officials said the bomber was dressed in a military uniform and detonated his explosives while hundreds of soldiers were around him. Yemen's defense minister was at Monday's rehearsal but was unharmed.
The soldiers were preparing for a parade on Tuesday to mark the unification of Yemen's north and south. Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was due to attend the parade.
Reports by Yemen's state television showed dozens of soldiers sprawled on the ground. At a nearby military hospital, doctors worked to save badly wounded soldiers.
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No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. But it coincides with a U.S.-backed Yemeni government offensive against al-Qaida militants who seized parts of the country's south last year as it was engulfed in a popular uprising against then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Mr. Hadi, who succeeded Mr. Saleh in February, has vowed to fight the growing presence of the terrorist network's regional affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Economist Intelligence Unit Middle East analyst Robert Powell said al-Qaida has been trying to organize itself in Sana'a for a long time and its activities have usually been disrupted.
Powell said the symbolism and substantial casualties from the attack on the military parade rehearsal indicate that al-Qaida has a greater reach inside Yemen than previously known.
Stephen Steinbeiser, who heads the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, said the blast struck close to the nerve center of power in the country.
"I'm hearing it was a bomber who was dressed like a soldier and who was basically able to infiltrate the central security forces whose job it is to fight al-Qaida and they did this in the heart of the capital at the main parade grounds while the minister of defense was observing, right next to the presidential compound," Steinbeiser said. "This sends a very, very strong message."
Yemeni TV reported that President Hadi replaced several top security officials after Monday's bomb attack. In a recent video message, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had urged Yemenis to fight their new president, whom he called a “U.S. agent.”
Analyst Steinbeiser said the Yemeni government appears to have made major inroads against al-Qaida in recent days, but that this is the kind of war which is “very difficult to assess in traditional terms.”
Many Yemenis, he said, oppose al-Qaida, but months of economic and political turmoil “make it easier to recruit for their militant, extremist ideology.”
Michael Lipin in Washington contributed to this report.