SANAA (AFP) – A suicide car bomber killed 23 Shiites at a religious procession in Yemen on Wednesday, an attack a tribal chief charged was a bid by Al-Qaeda to fan sectarian tensions in the already restive country.
Tribal leaders said the dead were all supporters or fighters of a Zaidi Shiite rebel group that has been observing an uneasy truce with the government since February.
The bomber struck in Al-Jawf province, a rebel stronghold in the far north, as the faithful were preparing to mark Al-Ghadeer. This is the day on which Shiites commemorate the anointment of Ali, one of the key figures of their faith, as successor to the Prophet Mohammed.
“It was a suicide bombing and it was the work of Al-Qaeda,” the tribal chief said.
“The suicide bomber driving a four-wheel drive vehicle blew himself up alongside the procession. Among the dead was provincial tribal chief Hussein bin Ahmed bin Hadhban and his son.”
Yemen is the ancestral homeland of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and has been a growing focus for the operations of his worldwide jihadist network, sparking a sharp increase in US military aid.
But the fanatically Sunni movement’s attacks had previously been largely confined to the capital and to the mainly Sunni south and east of Yemen, rather than the Zaidi majority north.
Rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam told AFP by telephone the attack was an attempt by the “American and Israeli intelligence services to plunge Yemen into confessional and tribal conflict.”
A second tribal chief said 11 of the dead, who were rebel supporters, were buried straight away in accordance with Muslim tradition.
“The bodies of the other 12, who were Huthi fighters, were taken away by the rebels,” he added, referring to them by the clan name of their leaders.
The mountains of Al-Jawf and neighbouring Saada and Amran provinces have been a stronghold of the rebels in the uprising they have been waging against the Sanaa government on and off for the past six years.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned on Tuesday there had been an “alarming escalation” in fighting in the region, despite the nine-month-old truce.
It said aid agencies and witnesses had reported that clashes between the rebels and pro-government tribes had erupted in Saada province on November 13.
“At least 20 people have been killed reportedly and others wounded over the past 10 days in the worst violence in northern Yemen since the signing of the ceasefire in February,” UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said, speaking before the latest unrest.
The army launched a major offensive against the rebels in August last year, sparking a new round of conflict that spilled over the border of the Arab world’s poorest country with oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
That fighting ended with a truce mediated by gas-rich Qatar.
The ceasefire has been repeatedly shaken by clashes between the rebels and pro-government tribes, and Qatar has been forced to undertake a series of mediation missions in a bid to shore it up.
Clashes late last month killed two rebel fighters and a pro-government tribesman, a tribal chief said.
The Zaidis are the majority community in northern Yemen but a minority in the mainly Sunni country as a whole.
There have been six rounds of fighting between the rebels and government troops since the uprising first erupted in 2004.
The UNHCR says more than 300,000 people have fled, of whom just 20,000 have so far returned to homes in Saada province.
In other developments, an influential Muslim television preacher from Egypt, Amr Khaled, launched in Yemen an initiative to recruit young people to combat “extremist ideas.”
At a ceremony in the southern city of Aden, he said 5,000 youths had already volunteered for the programme, which would aim to “spread moderate ideas among young people” and “root out extremism.”