SANAA, Yemen — Yemen’s political crisis deepened Monday when an explosion tore through a crowd of looters at an abandoned government weapons factory in the south, killing at least 110 people and underscoring an ominous collapse of authority after six weeks of rising protests.
In recent days, government forces have abandoned their posts across the country, including areas where northern rebels have long challenged the military and southern provinces where al-Qaida’s Arabian branch has maintained sanctuaries, Yemeni officials and witnesses said.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh cast the government’s losses in stark terms Sunday, telling a committee from his political party that six of Yemen’s 18 provinces “have fallen.”
But some Yemeni officials and analysts said the government withdrawals, and Saleh’s dramatic claim, might be at least partly a ploy to warn his backers in the West and the Arab world about possible consequences were he to fall from power.
Last week, battered by the defections of top military supporters as well as vast demonstrations in Sanaa, the capital, and in other major cities, Saleh took part in discussions mediated by U.S. diplomats aimed at a peaceful transfer of power.
The talks bogged down, and Saleh has since hardened his public stance, saying he would make no more concessions.
The strains on Yemen’s fragile state have grown worse since government supporters opened fire on protesters in the capital March 18, killing at least 50 and igniting outrage across the country.
On Monday, the opposition parties, known as the JMP, released a statement saying of the factory explosion: “This horrible crime came after the order of the authority to openly withdraw its military and security in favor of al-Qaida and other armed groups, in a desperate attempt of President Saleh to confirm his argument that Yemen is just a ticking time bomb.”
The explosion took place as crowds of impoverished local residents were looting the factory for valuable weapons, witnesses said. It appears to have been accidental, possibly caused by a lit cigarette on gunpowder or a gun used to open a room full of dynamite.
There were differing accounts of how the factory was abandoned; some news reports said militants clashed with security guards Sunday and captured the factory and two local towns.
But several people in the area said the factory’s guards abandoned it voluntarily, and that hooligans — not religious militants — appeared shortly afterward to loot armored cars, machine guns and ammunition.