Yemeni witnesses say an explosion at an ammunition factory looted by civilians in the southern province of Abyan has killed at least 78 people and injured dozens of others.
The witnesses say the blast happened near the town of Jaar on Monday, as residents were stealing ammunition from a factory raided a day earlier by Islamic militants who took control of the area.
The militants seized ammunition from the factory and left, enabling looters to enter. It was not clear what triggered the explosion. Doctors say many of the injured suffered burns.
Yemeni security forces had exchanged fire with the Islamist fighters in Jaar on Sunday. One soldier was killed in the fighting.
The unrest in southern Yemen is the latest crisis to face Yemen’s weakened president Ali Abdullah Saleh as he tries to deal with an escalating political crisis.
Saleh has faced weeks of daily mass protests demanding that he step down after 32 years in power. His security forces have engaged in deadly confrontations with opposition activists while also fighting al-Qaida militants who have used lawless parts of Yemen to plot and carry out attacks on the government and the West.
Saleh convened a meeting of his ruling General People’s Congress party Sunday, vowing there will be “no more concessions” to opposition groups who he says are bent on eradicating the party rather than engaging in democratic elections.
Yemeni opposition groups have rejected previous offers by Saleh to stand down before the end of his term in 2013, insisting on his immediate departure.