Al-Qaida says a suicide bomber's attack in Yemen that killed at least 96 troops and wounded more than 200 on Monday was revenge for what it called a U.S.-backed war on its followers.
Yemeni officials say a suspected rogue soldier detonated the explosives as hundreds of fellow troops were lining up for a military parade rehearsal in the capital, Sana'a. The soldiers were preparing for a parade on Tuesday to mark the unification of Yemen's north and south.
Al-Qaida's Yemen-based affiliate said the attack was aimed at top Yemeni commanders. It came during a U.S.-backed Yemeni government offensive against militants who seized southern regions last year, as the country was engulfed in an uprising against then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
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The U.S. condemned Monday's "cowardly" and "despicable" suicide bombing and offered President Barack Obama's condolences. Counter-terrorism chief John Brennan said he had spoken to Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who "pledged not to let terrorist acts interfere with Yemen's peaceful political transition."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned Monday's bombing, saying perpetrators of the terrorist attack must be held accountable. He called on all people in Yemen to reject the use of violence and fully implement the political transition agreement that saw Saleh step down earlier this year after 33 years of autocratic rule.
Yemen's defense minister and chief of staff both were at the Sana'a rehearsal but were unharmed. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula said the defense minister was a target of the bombing, and warned of more attacks if the government offensive does not stop.
Hadi, who succeeded Saleh in February, responded to the bombing by dismissing two senior Yemeni military commanders who were allies of his predecessor. He has promised to restructure the military and purge it of Saleh relatives and loyalists suspected of blocking reforms.
The Yemeni leader has also vowed to fight the growth of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network's regional affiliate.
Economist Intelligence Unit Middle East analyst Robert Powell told VOA that al-Qaida has been trying to organize itself in Sana'a for a long time, but its activities have usually been disrupted.
He 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, says 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."
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 says the Yemeni government appears to have made major inroads against al-Qaida in recent days, but that this kind of war is “very difficult to assess in traditional terms.” Many Yemenis oppose al-Qaida, he said, 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.