Middle East

Yemeni arms factory blast toll rises amid protests

A victim is carried out of an arms factory in Yemen, 28 March 2011
Image caption The death toll from the blasts on Monday has almost doubled

The death toll from explosions at an ammunition plant in southern Yemen has risen to 150.

Initial reports said 78 had died, but more bodies have since been pulled out of the factory in the town of Jaar.

The explosion has caused great anger among locals, who accuse the authorities of planning it to try to win further support from the US, a BBC correspondent says.

Yemeni officials have blamed al-Qaeda for the blasts.

The explosions came after weeks of protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule.

They occurred while residents were searching for ammunition left behind by suspected Islamist militants, who had been involved in clashes with government forces in the area on Sunday.

'Burnt beyond recognition'

Local officials said the death toll was based on the number of bodies found and the number of people missing following the blasts, adding that some bodies had been burnt beyond recognition.

About 80 people were injured, according to Ahmed Ghaleb Rahawi, the sub-prefect of Jaar.

Hundreds of people protested in the southern city of Aden on Tuesday, blaming the explosion on the authorities.

Residents quoted by Reuters said the authorities had deserted Jaar over recent days.

Opposition groups accused the authorities of withdrawing "in a desperate attempt by President Saleh and his ilk to prove that he was right when he said that Yemen is a ticking time bomb, that he is the only one who can prevent it from blowing up".

A statement from the opposition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) said it held "the president and his entourage accountable for the conspiracy with al-Qaeda" in the Arabian Peninsula.

The authorities said fighters from the al-Qaeda group raided the factory on Sunday, stealing carloads of weapons.

Analysts fear that the group, which claims affiliation with Osama Bin Laden's militant network, is taking advantage of instability caused by the spate of anti-government protests.

The Yemeni government has been a key US ally in the region, conducting numerous joint anti-terror raids. Despite this, militancy has continued to flourish.

It is one of a range of security issues in the country, including a separatist movement in the south and an uprising of Shia Houthi rebels in the north.

Yemen is also chronically poor - unemployment runs at about 40%, and there are rising food prices and acute levels of malnutrition.

Mr Saleh has continued to reject opposition demands that he leave office immediately.

"I tell those who appear in the media asking others to leave, that it is up to them to go," he was quoted as as saying by the state news agency Saba on Tuesday.

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