SAN'A, Yemen -- A Yemeni soldier detonated a bomb hidden in his uniform during a rehearsal for a military parade, killing 96 fellow soldiers and wounding at least 200 yesterday in one of the deadliest attacks in the capital in years.

Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen claimed responsibility, saying in an emailed statement that the suicide attack was intended to avenge a U.S.-backed offensive against al-Qaida in a swath of southern Yemen seized by the militant movement last year.

The bombing left a scene of carnage, with scores of dismembered, bleeding soldiers lying on the ground as ambulances rushed to the scene.

"This is a real massacre," said Ahmed Sobhi, a soldier who saw the blast. "This is unbelievable. I am still shaking. The place turned into hell. I thought this only happens in movies."

Al-Qaida said the bomber was targeting Yemen's defense minister, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, who had arrived at the heavily secured city square to greet the assembled troops just minutes before the blast ripped through the area. He was unhurt.

The bombing comes as Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has been pressing ahead on two difficult fronts -- battling al-Qaida in the south and purging loyalists of ousted leader Ali Abdullah Saleh from military and security top posts.

Saleh stepped down in February as part of a U.S.-backed, power-transfer deal brokered by Gulf Arab countries aimed at ending political unrest after a yearlong uprising. The deal gave Saleh immunity from prosecution in return for relinquishing his power.

Saleh originally appointed Ahmed to lead the defense ministry but recently has pressed from behind the scenes for his dismissal because Ahmed has been cooperating with Hadi.

Military officials said the bomber belonged to the Central Security, a paramilitary force commanded by Saleh's nephew, Yahia Saleh.

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