At least 80 people were killed when a powerful blast ripped through a weapons factory in southern Yemen on Monday after Islamic militants temporarily seized control of the plant and local residents began looting, media reports said.
[Updated, 12:55 p.m.: An earlier version of this post began by saying the death toll was at least 100. Although death tolls vary according to media reports, newer information indicates that the toll might be lower.]
The death toll from the blast varied widely among news agencies, with some reporting more than 100 dead. A local journalist and other media reports said the death toll was at least 80.
According to the Associated Press, quoting doctors in the town of Jaar where the explosion occurred, more bodies were expected to be pulled from the rubble. The medical workers said men, women and children were among the dead.
"This accident is a true catastrophe, the first of its kind" in the Abyan region, where Jaar is located, a doctor at the town's state-run hospital was quoted as saying. “There are so many burned bodies. I can't even describe the situation.”
Yemen's state-run Saba news agency said the local governor had instructed that a committee be formed to investigate the incident. It added that the factory was completely destroyed in the blast. Some reports suggested the explosion might have been caused by a cigarette.
The incident came a day after clashes broke out between militants and the Yemeni army, fueling fears that Yemen might descend into chaos and boost Al Qaeda in the country while the government of President Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for more than 30 years, is in deep crisis after massive popular protests.
Islamist militants reportedly took control of a number of buildings in Jaar, including the weapons plant, on Sunday. They reportedly entered the factory, took what they wanted and left. Looters from the area then entered the building.
The plant reportedly makes Kalashnikov rifles, munitions, and explosives used in road construction.
Media reports say police and security forces have recently deserted some towns in Yemen amid an escalating wave of anti-government protests. In some cases, they were chased out by protesters from villages and cities, including the area surrounding the weapons factory.
-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut