Suicide bombers on Friday attacked two mosques frequented by Shiite rebels who recently seized control of Yemen’s capital, killing 120 people and injuring more than 300 others, two officials with the rebel group said.
The mosques in Sanaa served members of the minority Zaidi sect of Shiite Islam — the sect followed by the Houthi militant group that recently took control of the capital of the majority Sunni Muslim nation and forced President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi to flee.
It’s one of the worst recent, single days of violence during a complicated struggle for control of a country where the Shiite rebels are opposed not only by Hadi supporters and Sunni Muslim tribes, but also the Sunni Muslim terror group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which exerts control in some rural areas of the country.
Among those killed Friday was prominent Houthi religious leader Murtatha Al Mahathwari, the state-run Saba news agency said.
Video distributed by Reuters showed people removing bodies from one of the mosques, where a carpeted floor was littered with debris.
No claims of responsibility for the blasts were immediately made public.
Also Friday, a separate explosion rocked a government compound in the Houthi stronghold city of Saada — 180 kilometers (112 miles) northeast of Sanaa — killing two people and seriously injuring a third, according to Abu Khalil Al Ameri, a local Houthi security official.
The attacks came two months after Houthis — who have long felt marginalized by the majority Sunnis in Yemen and have battled the central government for more than a decade — seized the presidential palace in Sanaa.
The explosions also came a day after deadly fighting erupted between Houthi-controlled forces and military units still loyal to Hadi in the port city of Aden, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) southeast of Sanaa.
The Houthi takeover of Sanaa stunned governments of Western nations, including the United States, which had a long relationship with Yemen’s leader, working with the regime to target AQAP militants.
U.S. officials frequently say AQAP is one of the most dangerous terror groups in the world, based on their attempts to attack U.S. interests, including an attempt to blow up an American jetliner over Detroit in December 2009.
The United States, along with most European and Persian Gulf countries, suspended operations in their embassies this year after the Houthis took Sanaa. But the United States’ anti-AQAP drone program in Yemen continued, with a U.S. drone strike killing senior AQAP cleric Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari and three other people in Shabwa province on January 31.
Blasts inside, outside mosques
In Friday’s assaults at Al Badr mosque and Al Hashoosh mosque in Sanaa, suicide bombings started inside the buildings, followed two minutes later by explosions outside, perhaps to target those fleeing the preliminary blasts, two senior Houthi leaders in Sanaa said.
At Al Badr mosque, the outdoor explosion was another suicide bombing; at Al Hashoosh mosque, the exterior blast was a car bomb, the two leaders said.
“We check people and watch at times, but it’s a mosque, and we can’t check everyone who enters,” said Ali Al Emad, a Houthi security worker at Al Hashoosh mosque.
Houthis entered Sanaa in September, demanding a greater share of political power. They took control over a period of months, seizing the presidential palace in January.
The Houthis hold sway in the nation’s north but have less influence elsewhere. They took control of military forces stationed near Sanaa, including the air force, as they overtook the government there in January.
Hadi initially was put under house arrest in Sanaa, but he escaped last month, fleeing to Aden and declaring himself to still be President.
Houthi airstrikes targeted Aden palace
On Thursday, a Yemeni jet commanded by the Houthis fired missiles at a palace where Hadi was taking refuge in Aden, injuring no one but marking an escalation in deadly fighting that’s erupted between forces for and against the ousted leader.
The jet flew from Sanaa to the palace in Aden, where the jet conducted the strikes Thursday afternoon, a senior air force official said on condition of anonymity.
Hadi was at the Aden palace compound when the first missile struck the grounds, but he then fled safely, a Hadi aide said, also on condition of anonymity.
A second missile struck near the compound but, like the first, injured no one, two officials in Aden said.
The airstrikes came on the same day that opposing Yemeni military forces — those commanded by Houthis, and those led by officers loyal to Hadi — battled in Aden, leaving at least 13 people dead and 21 others injured, Aden Gov. AbdulAziz Hobtour said.