- Associated Press - Monday, May 21, 2012

SANAA, Yemen — A suicide bomber blew himself up at a military parade rehearsal Monday in Yemen’s capital, killing 96 soldiers in one of the deadliest attacks in the city in years, officials said. Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch claimed responsibility for the attack.

The group said in an emailed statement that it had targeted the Minister of Defense, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, who arrived at the heavily secured city square to greet the assembled troops just minutes before the blast ripped through the area.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula vowed, “This is only the beginning of Jihad,” and said that its militants will continue staging attacks against the Yemeni leadership. It said the bombing was meant to take revenge for the government’s military offensive in a swath of southern Yemen seized by the militant movement last year.

A statement in the name of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi read on state TV said, “The war on terrorism will continue until we win, whatever the sacrifices are.”

The Pentagon also confirmed that three civilian contractors helping train Yemen’s coast guard were attacked Sunday in Yemen. Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a Defense Department spokesman, said Monday that injuries to the party were minor.

The three were traveling in a car in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida on Sunday, when they were shot at by militants in another vehicle.

Yemeni officials initially said the three were members of the U.S. Coast Guard, but the Guard denied that.

Military officials said the suicide bomber in Sanaa was a soldier taking part in the drill, lining up with fellow troops at a main square in the capital, not far from the presidential palace. He belonged to the Central Security, a paramilitary force commanded by ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s nephew Yahia, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Hadi has been trying to wrest control of the security forces away from Saleh, who is still seen to exercise much influence from behind the scenes.

Witnesses described the same scenario, but officials said they were still investigating.

Monday’s bombing left a scene of carnage, with scores of bleeding soldiers lying on the ground as ambulances rushed to the scene. Several severed heads were on the pavement amid large pools of blood and human remains.

“This is a real massacre,” said Ahmed Sobhi, one of the soldiers who witnessed the explosion. “There are piles of torn body parts, limbs, and heads. This is unbelievable. I am still shaking. The place turned into hell. I thought this only happens in movies.”

The bomber detonated his explosives minutes before the arrival of the defense minister and the chief of staff, who were expected to greet the troops, the officials said. The drill was a rehearsal for a parade for the celebration of Yemen’s National Day on Tuesday.

Soldiers hand-picked by their commanders from different branches of the military have been practicing together for the parade for a week, Sobhi said, citing that as evidence that the attacker was a soldier and not an infiltrator.

The site of the attack had been sealed off by Republican Guard forces for the past 24 hours in preparation for the National Day celebrations. No cars or pedestrians were allowed to enter. The Republican Guard is led by Saleh’s son and one-time heir apparent, Ahmed.

Khaled Ali, another soldier, told the Associated Press over the phone from the site of the attack that the explosion was followed by heavy gunfire.

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