SANAA, Yemen – Yemen’s chaos deepened on Monday when people looting a munitions factory set off an accidental explosion that killed at least 78 in an area torn from government control by Islamist militants exploiting the president’s rapidly dwindling power.
The militant seizure of the factory and nearby towns amplified Western fears that the fragile Yemeni state could deteriorate quickly because of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s standoff with an opposition coalition of youth groups, military defectors, clerics and tribal leaders calling for his ouster.
Saleh has cooperated closely with the U.S. in the battle against Yemen’s branch of al-Qaida, which has used areas of Yemen long out of state control to launch attacks including the attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner with a bomb sewn into underwear.
Saleh has also battled regional rebellions in the north and south.
State control diminished sharply this month as massive demonstrations spiraled in major cities and the government pulled police from many towns, and anti-government protesters in other areas pushed out police and soldiers and set up militias for self-defense. The protesters blame Saleh for mismanagement, repression and the fatal shootings of protesters, and say they will not relent until he goes.
On Sunday, armed men whom residents described as religious militants seized the towns of Jaar and al-Husn, a hilltop overlooking them, and the factory that makes Kalashnikov assault rifles, ammunitions and explosives used to build roads in the mountainous southern province of Abyan, where Yemen’s al-Qaida branch has been active.
Residents offered few details about the militants’ identities or broader allegiances.
Factory worker Hakim Mohammed told the Associated Press by telephone that the militants took two armored cars, a tank, several pickup trucks mounted with machine guns and ammunition. Later, dozens of impoverished men, women and children entered the facility and looted anything of value that remained, including cables, doors and vehicle fuel, he said.
Some emptied gunpowder barrels to use for collecting rain water, and others picked through the compound’s cafeteria for forgotten bags of flour and sugar, said Mohammed, 28.
Residents told the Al-Jazeera satellite network that someone may have dropped a lit cigarette next to the remaining explosives, setting off a massive blast that could be heard 10 miles away, resident Seif Mohammed said.