A huge fire and blasts killed more than 76 people at an ammunition factory looted by al-Qaeda on Monday, officials said, as President Ali Abdullah Saleh has warned of Somalia-like "chaos" in Yemen if he steps down without an agreed successor.
A security official said the explosions rocked the plant as dozens of residents were inside helping themselves to whatever ammunition and guns were left after Sunday's raid by suspected al-Qaeda fighters.
Al-Qaeda militants had lured the civilians into a "lethal trap," charged a spokesman for the restive southern province of Abyan, where he said a series of blasts set off a blaze which destroyed the plant.
The blasts were triggered by explosive powder left behind by Al-Qaeda, according to the unnamed official quoted on the defense ministry newspaper's 26sep.net website.
Another local official, Nasser al-Mansari, told AFP earlier that between 75 and 80 people were killed. Many victims were burnt beyond recognition and reduced to bone by the blasts and fire at the factory near the city of Jaar.
Around 20 women and several children were among the dead. In keeping with Islamic tradition, several of the victims were buried within hours.
President Saleh had warned that the country would descend into chaos if there is a power vacuum in the country and today’s explosions are likely to bolster his claims.
Saleh, who has been alternately conciliatory and defiant, vowed there would be no more concessions to the opposition, who are demanding he step down after 32 years of authoritarian power in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state.
A problem for a America?
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saleh's fall or replacement by a weaker leader would pose "a real problem" for Washington's fight against al-Qaeda, in an interview with ABC television.
Saleh at the same time portrayed himself as a symbol of stability in the Arabian peninsula.
"I have already said and I now reiterate that I am not clinging on to power," he said in an interview with Al-Arabiya television, as six soldiers died in another suspected al-Qaeda attack in Marib, in the east.
"I've spent 32 years (in office)... This is experience that I want to transfer peacefully to the people, not to chaos," the embattled president said, referring to the two months of anti-regime protests which have rocked Yemen.
"I will transfer power to the people, who are the source and owner of power," said Saleh, warning that Yemen was a "time bomb" and could slide into civil war like Somalia across the Gulf of Aden.
Washington and top oil producer Saudi Arabia have long seen Saleh as their man to keep al-Qaeda from expanding its foothold in a country many political analysts say is close to collapse.
I have already said and I now reiterate that I am not clinging on to power
President Ali Abdullah Saleh