People carry the remains of a victim of the explosion at a weapons factory… (Reuters )
Reporting from Beirut — 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 the plant and residents began looting, a local journalist and others in the media reported.
"Armed extremists had entered the factory [on Sunday] and taken the artillery, shells and bullets," said Shurki Hussein, the journalist, in a telephone interview. "What was left was mostly raw ammunition and gunpowder."
The explosion occurred the following day as looters raided the factory to take what was left, witnesses said.
Doctors in the town of Jaar, where the explosion occurred, said women and children were among the dead, the Associated Press reported.
"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."
News agencies gave varying death tolls for the blast, with some reporting more than 100 dead.
The state-run Saba news agency said the local governor had ordered an investigation of the incident. It added that the factory was 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 the nation might descend into chaos as the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh contends with a wave of protests against his rule. He has been in power for more than 30 years.
Islamic militants reportedly seized a number of buildings in Jaar, including the weapons plant, on Sunday. They were said to have entered the factory, taken what they wanted and left. Looters from the area then followed.
The plant reportedly made Kalashnikov rifles and munitions, as well as explosives used in road construction.
News 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 of villages and cities by protesters, including from the area surrounding the weapons factory.
Sandels is a special correspondent.