WASHINGTON - A huge suicide bombing in the heart of Yemen’s capital Monday morning left hundreds dead or wounded, stunning the country’s beleaguered government, and delivering a stark setback to the US counterterrorism campaign against Al Qaeda’s regional franchise, which has repeatedly tried to plant bombs on US-bound jetliners.
Militants allied with Al Qaeda quickly claimed credit for the bombing, in which a man disguised as a soldier blew himself up in the midst of a military parade rehearsal near the presidential palace in Sana, the capital.
It was the deadliest terrorist attack in years in Yemen, the dirt-poor south Arabian country that is central to US concerns about terrorism.
The militant group, which goes by the name Ansar al-Shariah, said in a Facebook post that the attack was aimed at Yemen’s defense minister and was intended to retaliate for the government campaign against Al Qaeda’s southern sanctuaries that began this month.
The militants appear to be holding out and inflicting heavy losses on Yemen’s weak and divided army, despite a stepped-up US campaign of drone strikes and military assistance.
The suicide bombing brought scenes of horrific carnage to a central square in Yemen’s capital, which had been spared the worst of the insurgent violence.
“I saw arms and legs scattered on the ground,’’ said one young soldier named Jamal. “The wounded people were piled on top of each other, covered with blood. It was awful.’’
Officials said as many as 100 people were killed and 300 wounded.
The bombing came just a week after President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, visited Sana and soon after the discovery of the third attempt to smuggle a bomb aboard a US-bound jetliner by Al Qaeda militants based in Yemen.
The bombing took Yemen’s security forces by surprise and was expected to further weaken morale among troops who are angry about poor pay, ill treatment, and corruption in the top ranks. Hours afterward, Yemen’s new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, announced the ouster of four high-ranking commanders and delivered a televised address in which he pledged to continue the fight against Al Qaeda “until their eradication, no matter what sacrifices are required.’’
Hadi took power in February from Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president whose unwillingness to cede power had long been an underlying cause of increasing mayhem in the country.
Although Hadi appears to be cooperating more eagerly with the United States in the fight against Al Qaeda than his predecessor, he faces extraordinary challenges, including a secessionist movement in the south and a legacy of corruption that has severely weakened efforts to take on the militants.
“This changes everything - the soldiers will be so angry and upset,’’ said one midlevel officer, speaking by phone from Sana on the condition of anonymity. “The politicians are playing dirty political games, and we are the ones who die. In the south, they are sending soldiers who have fired five bullets in their whole life against Al Qaeda, who fight constantly.’’
Monday’s carnage followed an attack Sunday against three US civilian contractors helping to train Yemen’s coast guard in the port city of Hodeida.
The contractors escaped with light injuries, State Department officials said.
Witnesses said the attacker Monday walked from the western part of Saba’een Square, dressed in military clothes, and detonated a suicide belt just before Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed and his immediate subordinates had been expected to greet the troops. Most of the casualties were members of the Central Security Organization, a paramilitary force commanded by Yahya Saleh, a nephew of the former president, according to several survivors.
In the past, Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch - eager to build its popularity with ordinary Yemenis - has tried to avoid deadly attacks on rank-and-file soldiers, and has used frequent online posts to urge them to defect.
This year, it kidnapped 75 soldiers in southern Yemen and later released them, saying it was doing so on the orders of the group’s commander, Nasser al Wihayshi.
The group appears to be less concerned about negative publicity now that it is engaged in an all-out battle to defend the territories it has controlled for more than a year in southern Yemen’s Abyan province.