SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Two suicide bombings in Yemen killed nearly 70 people on Thursday, with one targeting an anti-government rally by Shiite rebels who control Sanaa, leaving body parts strewn across a street in the heart of the capital and escalating sectarian tensions in a country gripped by turmoil.
The suicide bomber in Sanaa detonated his explosives-laden belt as he approached a security checkpoint run by Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, outside the anti-government rally, killing 47 people and wounding 75. Hours later, a suicide car bomber rammed a security outpost on the outskirts of the Arabian Sea port city of Mukalla, killing 20 soldiers and wounding 15.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, but they bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida's powerful local affiliate, which for years has waged a campaign of suicide bombings and other attacks against security forces and government facilities despite U.S. drone strikes targeting its leaders.
The Sunni extremist group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula had warned it would target the Houthis, and the attack in Sanaa threatened to set off the kind of sectarian bloodletting that is ravaging Iraq and Syria.
Yemen, an impoverished country whose rugged landscape and tribal society has long limited the reach of the central government, has been navigating a bumpy transition since long-ruling President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to step down following a 2011 uprising inspired by the Arab Spring.
Over the last several months, the Houthis had moved south from their northern stronghold, winning a series of battles against tribal and other forces allied with the Islamist Islah party and ultimately seizing the capital on Sept. 21.
The Houthis insist they want a greater share of power in a new national government, but their critics view them as a proxy of Shiite Iran bent on seizing power.
Shortly after the Houthis seized the capital, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed a suicide car bombing that killed one person at a Houthi field hospital and warned: "You will see your bodies scattered and your heads flying."
It would prove an eerie foretelling of the carnage visited upon Sanaa on Thursday.
The attacker mingled among protesters as they approached the venue of the planned rally in the city's landmark Tahrir Street before detonating his explosives, according to security and health officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.
The regional Al-Arabiyah news channel broadcast footage apparently taken by a security camera showing the exact moment of the blast. Many of some two dozen people shown in the video, all wearing long robes with jackets on top, dropped instantly, while others somehow ran away, apparently unscathed.
The dead and wounded were taken to three hospitals. At the Al-Moayed hospital, an Associated Press reporter saw body parts piled up on the floor, and two severed heads placed next to headless bodies. Another body lay next to a leg that had been sheared off.
There were at least six children in critical condition and some of the wounded arrived in hospital badly burnt, missing eyes or limbs.
Blood pooled on the ground at the scene of the blast as volunteers scooped up body parts from the pavement. Sandals and other personal belongings were scattered about.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. "strongly condemns today's despicable attack against civilians" as well as the attack on security forces.
"The Yemeni people have lived with senseless violence for far too long and the recent increase in hostilities against innocent civilians only undermines the progress Yemen has made in achieving meaningful reform since 2011," she said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the attacks, with his spokeswoman Vannina Maestracci calling them "heinous criminal acts."
"The secretary-general underscores the importance of quickly implementing the recently signed peace and national partnership agreement and its annex," she told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.
The Houthis had called the Sanaa rally to protest President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's choice for new prime minister, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, following a U.N.-brokered agreement to resolve the crisis. As tensions mounted, bin Mubarak asked Hadi early on Thursday to relieve him of the post.
The rally went ahead anyway, with some 4,000 Houthis calling on Hadi to step down and chanting slogans against the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Rebel leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi had delivered a televised statement on Wednesday night, calling on supporters to rally against the choice of bin Mubarak. He said the nomination came after Hadi met with the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, and called the president a "puppet" in the hands of foreign powers.
"Blatant foreign interference is a form of circumventing the popular revolution," he said.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.