People tend to the injured after suicide bombers hit two mosques in Yemen’s capital on Friday. Photo: Reuters
SAN’A, Yemen—A Yemeni division of Islamic State claimed responsibility for suicide bombings Friday that hit two mosques in Yemen’s capital, killing scores of people and injuring hundreds of others in the latest escalation of a conflict that has grown increasingly deadly in the past 48 hours.
The bombings targeted the Al Badr and Al Hashoosh mosques in San’a as worshipers gathered for midday prayers. At least 120 people, including Murtatha Al Mahathwari, a top Houthi religious leader, were killed in the blasts, according to medical personnel and Houthi officials. The death toll, which currently is in the hundreds, is expected to rise, the officials added.
Another bombing on Friday rocked a government compound in Saada province, a Houthi stronghold where the group’s leader, Abdul Malik Al Houthi, is based. Two people were killed and a third person was in critical condition, two local officials said.
The Yemeni Islamic State group San’a Province said in a message distributed on Twitter that four of its suicide bombers carried out the operations, according to a translation by the extremist-tracking SITE Intelligence Group. The claims couldn’t be independently verified.
The message decried the Houthis as “polytheists” and said the operations were “but the tip of the iceberg that is coming.”
If the claim of responsibility is accurate, the attacks would be the first known in Yemen by San’a Province, and the first known there by an Islamic State affiliate. Islamic State extremists took wide swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria starting last summer, and the group is currently the target of a U.S.-led coalition carrying out airstrikes to stop its spread.
Despite the U.S.-led campaign, Islamic State’s influence has spread in recent months to other countries including Libya. There, a group claiming loyalty to Islamic State beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians last month.
Friday’s attacks in Yemen were the first major strikes targeting Houthi-controlled mosques, and could bring sectarian tensions there between the Shiite Muslim Houthis and their Sunni Muslim opponents to the fore. They were the deadliest terrorist attacks in San’a since a car bombing targeting a police academy in January killed 40 people.
They also came a day after 13 people were killed during violent clashes at the international airport in the southern port city of Aden. Yemeni special forces loyal to former president and Houthi ally Ali Abdullah Saleh cut off roads to the airport, leading Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the embattled current president who is based in Aden, to send in government troops.
Troops backed by a column of tanks expelled the special forces after several hours of fighting.
Later on Thursday, the presidential compound in Aden where Mr. Hadui is based was targeted by two airstrikes that were apparently carried out by the Houthi-controlled Yemeni air force. Mr. Hadi fled to a secure location and was unharmed, an aide to the president said.
Yemen has been in a state of turmoil since September, when Houthi militants overran San’a and demanded a greater say in state affairs. They are based in northern Yemen, but they have used their forces to extend their control in the south over the past months. The Houthis, which are estimated to make up around 30% of Yemen’s population, are part of the Zaidi offshoot of Shiite Islam.
United Nations-brokered talks for a political compromise began after the Houthis descended on San’a, but they failed to produce any power-sharing deal. The Houthis took control of the government in February.
Mr. Hadi was placed under house arrest in San’a, but escaped two weeks later to Aden, where he has the support of local tribes and security forces. He has since been trying to mount a comeback.
Amid the upheaval, at least a dozen countries including the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia have closed their embassies. The deteriorating security situation is a concern to the U.S. because of its long-running counterterrorism cooperation with Mr. Hadi against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the potent Yemeni terror group.