SANAA - Yemen's army chief vowed Tuesday no let-up in an offensive against Al-Qaeda after a suicide bomber killed 96 soldiers in a massive attack in the heart of Sanaa and two other would-be attackers were arrested.
The suicide bomber, dressed as a soldier, detonated his explosives as an army battalion was rehearsing a parade at the capital's Sabeen Square scheduled for Tuesday to mark the 22nd anniversary of Yemen's reunification.
The parade was replaced on Tuesday by a low-key, sombre ceremony attended by President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, who watched from behind a bullet-proof shield and left as soon as the event ended without making a speech.
Army chief of staff Ali al-Ashwal used the occasion to warn Al-Qaeda and its local affiliates that the "war" against them would continue unabated.
"The barbaric attack on Sabeen Square will not scare us and will not prevent us from going ahead with our war on these evil elements," Ashwal told the ceremony which was held under tight security measures.
"Our war on them will not stop until we free our land," said Ashwal, who was among the officials, including defence minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, apparently targeted in Monday's attack.
Soon after the blast, Yemeni authorities arrested two men in Sanaa who were found hiding explosive belts under their military uniforms, a security official said.
The men, "wearing explosives belts each packed with 13 kilograms (28.6 pounds)" were arrested in Sanaa, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They were planning to carry out further attacks."
AQAP, the group's Yemen branch, claimed responsibility for the attack which it said targeted "the defence minister and other leaders of the US war on our people in Abyan" province in the south.
"Even if the defence minister and his aides escaped this operation, we will not tire ... we are in a war to defend our blood which is violated in Abyan, and war only breeds war," it said in a statement posted on jihadist Internet forums.
Police Colonel Abdul Hamid Bajjash, the officer in charge of security at the blast site, said Yemen's defence minister was present at the time of the explosion but escaped unharmed.
Yemen's military launched a major offensive in Abyan on May 12 in a bid to drive Al-Qaeda linked jihadists out of towns and cities in the restive province where they have held sway since May last year.
Since the offensive began, 234 people have been killed, according to a tally compiled by AFP, including 158 Al-Qaeda fighters, 41 military personnel, 18 local militiamen and 17 civilians.
Local sources in Abyan told AFP on Tuesday that clashes erupted anew on the western outskirts of Al-Qaeda stronghold Jaar, where the army is currently focusing its assault.
At the same time, the sources said, fighting had subsided around Abyan's capital Zinjibar, which the jihadists have held since last year.
"The war on terror will continue until it is completely destroyed regardless of the sacrifices," President Hadi said after Monday's attack, the deadliest since he took power in February.
Obama said the United States was very worried about the threat posed by AQAP and pledged to work with the Yemeni government to crack down the group.
"We are very concerned about Al-Qaeda and extremist activity in Yemen," Obama told reporters at a NATO summit in Chicago Monday devoted to ensuring that Al-Qaeda is not allowed to regroup in another one-time terror haven, Afghanistan.
The United States has carried out regular drone strikes against AQAP suspects in Yemen.
In May, several US drone strikes killed a number of Al-Qaeda militants including a top Al-Qaeda leader wanted following the disruption of a plot for a suicide bomber to wear a device sewn into custom fit underwear designed to bring down a passenger jet.
The plot mirrored another Yemen-based plot, on Christmas Day 2009, when a suicide bomber tried to bring down a US airliner over Detroit, but the device failed to properly explode.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said those behind the attack must be brought to justice.
The European Union also condemned a "brutal and terrible" bombing, while Britain slammed the "cowardly" suicide bombing.