Nearly 60 suspected al-Qaida militants tunneled their way out of a Yemeni prison in the lawless south on Wednesday, deepening the chaos of a nation where protesters are trying to topple the autocratic regime.
The escape from the Mukalla prison in Hadramout province is the latest sign that Islamic militants are seizing on the mayhem to operate more freely, something the U.S. fears will become an increasing international threat if the impoverished nation grows even more unstable. Hundreds of Islamic militants have also taken control of two southern towns in recent weeks.
The jailbreak in the early hours of Wednesday harked back to one in February 2006, when 23 al-Qaida militants broke out of a detention facility in Sanaa, Yemen's capital. They included Nasser al-Wahishi, who went on to become the leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which Washington says is already the terror network's most active branch.
Yemeni security officials said the escapees on Wednesday included two Syrians, two Saudis and 16 members of an al-Qaida cell blamed for at least 13 terror attacks.
A growing al-Qaida threat would deepen the country's predicament.
Already, much of Yemen has been paralyzed by months of massive protests demanding the ouster of longtime leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. The crisis shifted to armed street conflict between troops loyal to Saleh and rival tribal fighters.
The president of nearly 33 years was badly wounded in an attack on his Sanaa compound earlier this month, and his departure for medical treatment in neighboring Saudi Arabia has failed to break the deadlock.
The unrest also has significantly worsened conditions for most Yemenis, whose lives had been difficult even before the start of the unrest in February. Most now suffer from an acute shortage of drinking water, lengthy power cuts and soaring food prices.
The United States already has warned that militants in Yemen were taking advantage of the unrest to operate more openly and have been able to acquire and hold more territory. Anticipating conditions to worsen, Washington is building a secret CIA air base in the Persian Gulf region to target al-Qaida, The Associated Press learned last week.
The AP also learned that the White House has increased the number of CIA officers in Yemen and stepped up the schedule to construct the base.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday that Washington was trying to learn all the facts about Wednesday's jailbreak and emphasized that cooperation with Yemeni officials on counterterrorism was continuing despite the turmoil.
"Obviously the instability in Yemen is the kind that al-Qaida feeds on or tries to take advantage, exploit, throughout the world. It's concerning, but our cooperation continues," he told reporters in Washington.
Al-Qaida in Yemen has been linked to several nearly successful attacks on U.S. targets, including the plot to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner in December 2009. It also put sophisticated bombs into U.S.-addressed parcels that made it onto cargo flights last year.
An impoverished Arab nation on the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is also home to U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whom the United States has put on a kill-or-capture list. Washington accuses him of inspiring attacks on the U.S., including the 2009 shooting at a military base in Fort Hood, Texas, that killed 13 people.
Wednesday's carefully choreographed escape could only deepen Washington's concerns and maybe prompt it to step up its military operations against militants in Yemen.
Senior U.S. diplomat Jeffrey Feltman was visiting Yemen Wednesday and met with Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is acting president while Saleh is in Saudi Arabia, and other senior government and military officials.
A Yemeni government official said Feltman urged them to implement a deal proposed by Gulf nations for ending the political crisis. The deal calls for Saleh to transfer power to his vice president, but Saleh has balked at signing it.
A total of 57 al-Qaida-linked militants, including several on death row, attacked their guards and seized their weapons before they made their way through a 45-yard tunnel to freedom. Simultaneously, bands of gunmen opened fire at the prison from outside to divert the guards' attention, the Yemeni security officials said.
At least one guard was killed and another wounded, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Three of the escapees were later killed by security forces, according to the Interior Ministry. Two others were captured, it said in a statement late Wednesday.
The 57 were among a total of 62 inmates who also escaped, but it was not immediately clear whether the other six were also Islamic militants.
The officials said 16 of the inmates who escaped belonged to a Hadramout cell blamed for a series of attacks in the last two years. Their leader, Hamza al-Qehety, was killed in a clash with security forces in 2008, but several of the cell's senior members were believed to be among those who escaped Wednesday.
The cell is blamed for killing two Belgian tourists in 2008 and an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa later that year. It is also held responsible for attacks on security forces.
The escape at Mukalla is not the only sign of militants emboldened by the unrest in Yemen, the poorest Arab nation.
Al-Qaida-linked militants seized control last month of two towns in Abyan, another southern province, and briefly took control of several neighborhoods in the neighboring province of Lahj last week.
Some of these militants belong to groups that have been quietly tolerated by President Saleh who used them to counter the weight of other extremists or against secessionists in the mostly secular south of the country.
Hendawi reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.