ADEN (Reuters) - A series of blasts at a bullet factory in south Yemen killed at least 110 people on Monday when residents broke in to steal ammunition a day after clashes between militants and the army in the town, doctors said.
Witnesses said the blasts, possibly triggered by a cigarette, caused a massive fire in the factory in the town of Jaar in Abyan province, where al Qaeda militants and mainly leftist southern separatists are active.
“This accident is a true catastrophe, the first of its kind in Abyan,” said one doctor at the state-run hospital. “There are so many burned bodies. I can’t even describe the situation.”
Doctors put the death toll at 110, but said that even arriving at a figure was difficult because the charred remains were difficult to count. They said some victims, including women and children, would be buried in a mass grave.
Scores were wounded, many suffering from burns, doctors said, and many bodies remained inside the factory, which also contained stores of gunpowder.
Clashes broke out in Jaar on Sunday between militants and the army, feeding Western and Saudi fears that chaos in Yemen would benefit al Qaeda’s Yemen-based arm while President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year-old rule is in crisis.
Saleh is facing pressure from tens of thousands of protesters demanding his removal. Talks on a transition have stalled, although sources close to the discussions said a deal was still within reach.
Militants who a provincial government official said were suspected to be from al Qaeda seized control of several buildings on Monday in the town of several hundred thousand residents, including the bullet factory.
The army tried to dislodge them, but later appeared to have deserted the town for the provincial capital of Zinjibar, where security was tightened after militants fired rockets at state buildings, witnesses said.
One soldier was killed on Sunday and aircraft flew over Jaar.
By early on Monday, Islamist gunmen appeared to be in control of Jaar and had left the bullet factory. But they did not prevent residents from streaming in to see the factory or steal from an ammunition depot on the site, witnesses said.
“The factory is surrounded by these terrorist elements who did not permit fire trucks to enter to extinguish the blaze in the factory, nor did they allow ambulances to transport the dead and wounded to hospitals,” a provincial official said.
Doctors said they were later allowed in to retrieve the remains, and the governor of Abyan announced an investigation, state media said.
Washington, which has been involved in the transition talks in Yemen, and Saudi Arabia have seen Saleh as a strongman to keep al Qaeda from extending its foothold in a country which many political analysts say is close to collapse.
Yemen’s al Qaeda wing claimed responsibility for a foiled attempt in late 2009 to blow up an airliner bound for Detroit and for U.S.-bound cargo bombs sent in October 2010.
With central control weak, Saleh’s government has relied on tribal allies to maintain order but in recent years has faced rebellions by Zaidi Shi‘ites in the north and a separatist movement hoping to recreate the state of South Yemen that united with the north under Saleh’s rule in 1990.
Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Diana Abdallah