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Yemen factory blast kills 110, underlines authority collapse

An opposition coalition of youth groups, military defectors, clerics, and tribal leaders called for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh yesterday at in Sana, Yemen. An opposition coalition of youth groups, military defectors, clerics, and tribal leaders called for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh yesterday at in Sana, Yemen. (Muhammed Muheisen/ Associated Press)
By Laura Kasinof
New York Times / March 29, 2011

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SANA, Yemen — Yemen’s political crisis deepened yesterday when an explosion tore through a crowd of looters at an abandoned government weapons factory in the south, killing at least 110 people and underscoring an ominous collapse of authority after six weeks of rising protests.

In recent days, government forces have abandoned their posts across the country, including areas where northern rebels have long challenged the military and southern provinces where Al Qaeda’s Arabian branch has maintained sanctuaries, Yemeni officials and witnesses said.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh cast the government’s losses in stark terms Sunday, telling a committee from his political party that six of Yemen’s 18 provinces “have fallen.’’

But some Yemeni officials and analysts said the government withdrawals, and Saleh’s dramatic claim, might be at least partly a ploy to warn his backers in the West and the Arab world about possible consequences were he to fall from power.

“Sadly, the country is being ripped apart’’ to maintain Saleh’s hold on power, said one high-ranking Yemeni official, speaking of the turmoil in Yemen’s outlying areas.

The Yemeni president has often held himself up as the only alternative to chaos or Al Qaeda-style extremism. Last week, battered by the defections of top military supporters as well as vast demonstrations in Sana, the capital, and in other major cities, he took part in discussions mediated by US diplomats aimed at a peaceful transfer of power.

The talks bogged down, and Saleh has since hardened his public stance, saying he would make no more concessions.

Saleh’s government is facing real challenges, and it was not clear whether he was exploiting the situation for political gain. Certainly, the massive demonstrations in cities across Yemen have strained the capacities of Yemen’s fragile state, pushing police officers and soldiers back from town centers and testing their loyalties.

The strains have grown worse since government supporters opened fire on protesters in the capital March 18, killing at least 50 and igniting outrage across the country.

One thing is clear: Yemen’s opposition parties, as well as the loose-knit youth groups that led the protests challenging Saleh, believe the chaos and violence are nothing more than a cynical political ploy.

Yesterday, the opposition parties, known as the JMP, released a statement saying of the factory explosion: “This horrible crime came after the order of the authority to openly withdraw its military and security in favor of Qaeda and other armed groups, in a desperate attempt of President Saleh to confirm his argument that Yemen is just a ticking time bomb.’’

The explosion took place as crowds of impoverished local residents were looting the factory for valuable weapons, witnesses said. It appears to have been accidental, possibly caused by a lighted cigarette on gunpowder.

If Saleh was hoping for support from neighboring Saudi Arabia, which sent military forces to shore up its ally and neighbor, Bahrain, earlier this month, he is likely to be disappointed.

The Saudis are especially concerned about the situation just across their border in northern Yemen, where Houthi rebels — who have battled the Yemeni government intermittently for years — occupied the capital city of Yemen’s Saada province for the first time last week.

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