Yemen: Bombs kill 120 at mosques frequented by rebels in capital

By Hakim Almasmari and Jason Hanna, CNN
Updated 11:23 AM ET, Fri March 20, 2015

Story highlights

  • Suicide bombers caused the explosions, officials say
  • The blasts happened at mosques frequented by a minority Muslim sect that controls capital
  • A third blast in a Houthi government building north of Sanaa killed two people, an official says

Sanaa, Yemen (CNN)Suicide bombers on Friday attacked two mosques frequented by rebels who recently seized control of Yemen's capital, killing 120 people and injuring more than 300 others, two officials with the rebel group said.

The mosques in Sanaa served members of the minority Zaidi sect of Shiite Islam -- the sect followed by the Houthi militant group that recently took control of the capital of the majority Sunni Muslim nation and forced President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi to flee.

Among those killed was prominent Houthi religious leader Murtatha Al Mahathwari, the state-run Saba news agency said.

Video distributed by Reuters showed people removing bodies from one of the mosques, where a carpeted floor was littered with debris.

Yemen mosque attacks 6 photos

No claims of responsibility for the blasts were immediately made public.

Also Friday, a separate explosion rocked a government compound in the Houthi stronghold city of Saada -- 180 kilometers (112 miles) northeast of Sanaa -- killing two people and seriously injuring a third, according to Abu Khalil Al Ameri, a local Houthi security official.

The attacks came two months after Houthis -- who have long felt marginalized by the majority Sunnis in Yemen and have battled the central government for more than a decade -- seized the presidential palace in Sanaa.

The explosions also came a day after deadly fighting eruptedbetween Houthi-controlled forces and military units still loyal to Hadi in the port city of Aden, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) southeast of Sanaa.

Blasts inside, outside mosques

In Friday's assaults at Al Badr mosque and Al Hashoosh mosque in Sanaa, suicide bombings started inside the buildings, followed two minutes later by explosions outside, perhaps to target those fleeing the preliminary blasts, two senior Houthi leaders in Sanaa said.

At Al Badr mosque, the outdoor explosion was another suicide bombing; at Al Hashoosh mosque, the exterior blast was a car bomb, the two leaders said.

Houthis entered Sanaa in September, demanding a greater share of political power. They took control over a period of months, seizing the presidential palace in January.

The Houthis hold sway in the nation's north but have less influence elsewhere. They took control of military forces stationed near Sanaa, including the air force, as they overtook the government there in January.

Watch: Who are the Houthis?

Hadi initially was put under house arrest in Sanaa, but he escaped last month, fleeing to Aden and declaring himself to still be President.

The Houthis are opposed not only by Hadi loyalists, but also Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, the Sunni Muslim extremist group that exerts influence over many rural areas across the country. AQAP vowed to attack Houthi loyalists nationwide last year.

The Houthi takeover of Sanaa stunned governments of Western nations, including the United States, which had a long relationship with Yemen's leader, working with the regime to target AQAP militants. The United States, along with most European and Persian Gulf countries, suspended operations in their embassies this year after the Houthis took Sanaa.

Houthi airstrikes targeted Aden palace

On Thursday, a Yemeni jet commanded by the Houthis fired missiles at a palace where Hadi was taking refuge in Aden, injuring no one but marking an escalation in deadly fighting that's erupted between forces for and against the ousted leader.

The jet flew from Sanaa to the palace in Aden, where the jet conducted the strikes Thursday afternoon, a senior air force official said on condition of anonymity.

Hadi was at the Aden palace compound when the first missile struck the grounds, but he then fled safely, a Hadi aide said, also on condition of anonymity.

A second missile struck near the compound but, like the first, injured no one, two officials in Aden said.

The airstrikes came on the same day that opposing Yemeni military forces -- those commanded by Houthis, and those led by officers loyal to Hadi -- battled in Aden, leaving at least 13 people dead and 21 others injured, Aden Gov. AbdulAziz Hobtour said.