ADEN, (AFP) — At least 62 Al-Qaeda prisoners escaped from a south Yemen jail on Wednesday after they clashed with guards, killing one and wounding two others, security and medical officials told AFP.
The prisoners fled the central jail in Al-Mukalla, capital of the southeastern province of Hadramawt, into the nearby mountains after they overpowered the guards and seized some of their arms, a security official said.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, had initially said the prisoners fled after heavily armed Al-Qaeda fighters raided the prison to free them.
Another security official said a total of 62 inmates fled through a tunnel dug under the prison.
The jail is believed to house more than 100 Al-Qaeda militants, 58 of whom have been tried and sentenced, the official said.
Nasir al-Wahayshi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), made a similar escape along with 23 other members of the network from a prison in Sanaa in February 2006.
The spokesman for the civil society organisations in Hadramawt, Nasser Bakazzuz, accused the authorities of assisting the prisoners to escape.
“The regime is living its last days and wants to create chaos in Hadramawt province … There was no attack by Al-Qaeda on the jail to free prisoners,” Bakazzuz said.
A dissident military official echoed Bakazzuz’s charges that security forces have facilitated the fleeing of the prisoners “as there was no resistance based on the death and injury toll.”
A medic at Ibn Sina hospital in the city said a security force member was killed and two others wounded, while an Al-Qaeda militant who arrived at the hospital in critical condition later died.
The military official said: “I fear the repetition of a scenario similar to that which took place in Zinjibar,” capital of the southern province of Abyan, which has widely fallen under the control of suspected Al-Qaeda militants since late May.
Battles have raged between the army and the alleged Al-Qaeda militants in several parts of the Arabian Peninsula nation that has also been witnessing a massive uprising against the 33-year-old rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
At least 100 soldiers have been killed since the violence in Zinjibar erupted more than three weeks ago, and 260 have been wounded, according to a military official.
Fighting between government forces and suspected Al-Qaeda elements in southern Yemen have displaced 45,000 people, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Tuesday.
“OCHA is concerned about this conflict situation in southern Yemen in Abyan province,” said Elisabeth Byrs, an OCHA spokeswoman. “We are concerned about the resulting displacement of people.”
Uncertainty has prevailed over the impoverished and deeply tribal country’s fate after Saleh was flown to Riyadh for treatment for wounds suffered when a bomb exploded as he prayed at his palace mosque earlier this month.
The president has made no public appearance since the attack, sparking speculation concerning his situation and casting doubts over the possibility of his return to power.
In Saleh’s absence, Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi has been coming under intense local and international pressure to heed the demands of protesters to set up an interim ruling council, which would prevent Saleh returning to power.
But Hadi’s grip on power is strongly questioned as relatives of Saleh continue to run main security systems. Key among them is Saleh’s son, Ahmed, who leads the elite Republican Guard.
Top US official Jeffrey Feltman met Hadi in Sanaa on Wednesday and discussed with him the latest developments in Yemen and means of cooperation to “confront terror,” state news agency Saba reported.
Saleh, 69, has been a key US ally on the “war on terror”
Yemen is the ancestral homeland of late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the jihadists’ local affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is blamed for anti-US plots including trying to blow up a US-bound airplane on Christmas Day in 2009.