Yemen mosque blast kills 18


Sana’a : Eighteen people, mostly soldiers, were killed in Yemen yesterday when a blast blamed by authorities on Shiite insurgents exploded at the entrance to a mosque in the rebels’ stronghold. A booby-trapped motorcycle exploded as hundreds of Muslim faithful were leaving the Bin Salman mosque in the northwestern town of Saada after Juma prayers, according to military sources at the site. Forty-five people were wounded, AFP reported. The attack on the mosque, located near an army barracks, raised fears of an escalation in violence between the government and Shiite rebels whose insurgency in the mountainous province of Saada has claimed thousands of lives since 2004.

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Meanwhile, Clashes between government forces and Shia fighters have resumed after a deadly bombing near a northern Yemeni mosque, according to a government official. The official said today three soldiers and four fighters of Abdel-Malek al-Huthi’s group were killed in overnight clashes in the mountain province of Saada near the Saudi border. The fighting erupted even as families buried the victims of the previous day’s bombing.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the mosque blast, but a local official said the attack bears the hallmarks of the Huthis, as the rebels are known. “Terrorist criminal followers of the terrorist Abdul Malak al-Huthi are behind this ugly crime,” an interior ministry official told the Saba state news agency, referring to the rebels’ field commander. But Huthi, in a statement received by AFP, condemned the “tragic” attack and called for “searching for the truth objectively” in order to identify the perpetrators.

The rebel chief also accused unnamed parties of seeking to thwart peace efforts in Saada and urged natives of the province to close ranks. Military sources said the dead were mostly soldiers, but they also included beggars — women and children — who had been waiting outside the mosque. Most of the injured were soldiers.

Some witnesses said the attack might have targeted the mosque’s imam Askar Zuail. An army officer who adheres to the rigorous Salafi school of Sunni Islam, he has used his sermons to mobilize worshippers against the Shiite rebels. Witnesses said the cleric had just left the mosque and was not hurt. Local sources said the imam is an aide to Ali Mohsen, military commander of the northwestern region who has led the battle against the insurgents.

The interior ministry later said it had arrested a number of armed men on suspicion of being the culprits after they were stopped at a security checkpoint in the Saada region, Saba reported. It said there was evidence the suspects had sat in their car outside the targeted mosque during the prayers, and fled quickly after the explosion.

Mosques in Yemen cater for both the majority Sunni community and the Zaidis, a Shiite offshoot, but are usually identified by the sect of their prayer leader. The rebels are Zaidis. On Tuesday, seven soldiers were killed and 20 wounded when their convoy was ambushed by rebels in Saada. The renewed violence comes despite recent efforts to implement a peace deal between the government and the rebels brokered by Qatar in June 2007. The agreement, under which the insurgents would lay down their arms, was revived during a meeting between the two sides in Doha in February. Qatari mediators were still in the capital Sana’a yesterday.

Yemeni authorities have rushed military reinforcements to Saada in the past few days. The rebels have been fighting to restore the Zaidi imamate, which was overthrown in a 1962 republican coup in Yemen. The insurgents are known as Huthis after their late commander, Hussein Badr Eddin al-Huthi, who was killed by the army in September 2004. Hussein was succeeded as field commander by Abdul Malak, his brother.