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Inside help suspected in al Qaeda prison break

AP | February 7 2006

SANAA, Yemen — Investigators are looking into the possibility that Yemeni intelligence officers helped 23 al Qaeda prisoners -- including a militant convicted in the 2000 USS Cole bombing -- escape from an underground prison located beneath a heavily guarded security headquarters, officials said Monday.

The prisoners escaped Friday, apparently by digging a tunnel some 180 metres long that emerged at a mosque, the security officials said.

It was not the first major prison escape for al Qaeda militants. At least four members of the group broke out of a prison at Bagram, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan in July. Among them was Omar al-Farouq, a top leader of al Qaeda in Southeast Asia.

An investigation headed by the Yemeni interior minister has begun questioning intelligence officers, government and security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"It couldn't have happened without the co-ordination of high ranking officers in the intelligence,'' said one official. He pointed to possible militant infiltration of the intelligence agency, saying hundreds of Yemenis who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s against Russian occupation were given jobs with the security forces when they returned.

"It is no surprise that many of these former fighters are sympathetic to al Qaeda,'' he said.

Yemen's Interior Ministry confirmed in a statement that the convicts escaped from the headquarters for the political security forces. It gave no further details.

The prison was underground in the headquarters, one of the most heavily guarded buildings in the capital. The compound is surrounded by a high wall and armed guards, and all roads leading to it are blocked to vehicles.

The 23 militants, all convicted members of al Qaeda, were all kept in the same cell, the officials said.

Interpol said Sunday it was informed by Yemen that Jamal al-Badawi, who was convicted of plotting and helping carry out the Cole bombing, was among the fugitives.

Al-Badawi was among those sentenced to death in September 2004 in the attack, which left 17 sailors dead when suicide bombers blew up an explosives-laden boat next to the destroyer as it refuelled in the Yemeni port of Aden on Oct. 12, 2000.

His sentence was later reduced to 15 years in prison.

At least 10 of the escaped convicts had escaped once before -- from an Aden prison in 2003.

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