The Yemeni government’s temporary headquarters in the southern city of Aden and two bases used by Gulf troops helping to fight Houthi rebels were hit by deadly explosions Tuesday, with the Islamic State extremist group claiming responsibility.
It would be the first time that the radical militants have targeted Yemen’s government, which last month returned from six months in exile in Saudi Arabia.
Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and other cabinet members escaped unharmed, officials said. But four soldiers from the United Arab Emirates were among the up to 18 people reported to have been killed.
Bahah’s internationally recognized government is operating from a hotel in Aden while Yemeni militiamen and troops from a coalition of Gulf states battle the Houthis, who control the capital, Sana’a.
“The attack undermines the number one priority of the government, which has to be restoring security,” analyst Adam Baron of the European Council on Foreign Relations told dpa.
Bahah and other ministers were evacuated from their residence in the city’s Qasr Hotel after the early morning blast.
They held a cabinet meeting later and vowed to continue to work from Aden “until every part of the country is liberated” from the Houthis, according to the official Saba news agency.
A statement published on social media by supporters of the Islamic State group said that four suicide bombers, using armoured cars packed with explosives, carried out the attack.
Dpa was not able to verify the authenticity of the statement, but it is similar to claims issued by the group after previous attacks.
Islamic State’s Yemeni branch has repeatedly claimed deadly attacks on mosques in the capital frequented by Houthi supporters, and it also said it was behind a bombing at a Sana’a mosque Tuesday in which seven people were killed.
Bahah at first suggested that the Aden blasts were caused by rockets – which would have pointed to the Houthis as perpetrators – but the cabinet meeting heard that initial investigations pointed to the use of cars rigged with explosives, Saba reported.
Aden has been plagued by insecurity since UAE troops and local fighters drove the mainly Shiite Houthi rebels, whose power base is in northern Yemen’s tribal highlands, from the city in July.
Al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants “enjoy a considerable freedom of movement” in Aden, Baron said, citing conversations with residents.
The UAE army command said that four of its troops had been killed in the explosions. Local newspaper Aden al-Ghad put the total death toll at 18.
Baron warned that the blasts raise questions about the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy in Yemen.
“The Gulf states in particular talk a lot about the military aspect of their intervention. But what is their ultimate aim? – a secure Yemen,” he said.
“Aden is the key test case,” Baron argued. “Can they provide this city, which has been devastated by the conflict, with some modicum of stability?”
The government said it would take immediate steps to bolster security in the city, including speeding up moves to integrate the local militiamen who fought off the Houthis into the army and security forces.
The blasts come after days of fierce fighting along Yemen’s coast near the Bab al-Mandib Strait at the entrance to the Red Sea, and in Marib province east of Sana’a.
Anti-Houthi fighters claim to have recaptured the area around the Bab al-Mandib Strait and strategic points in Marib from the rebels.
Marib was the scene of the Gulf coalition’s worst losses in the Yemen conflict, when a Houthi rocket attack in early September killed more than 65 Gulf troops, mostly from the UAE.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other mainly Gulf states have been engaged in an intensive air campaign against the rebels since President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi fled the country in March.
The Sunni Gulf states fear that the rebels will give their regional rival, Shiite Iran, a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula.