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'Cole' bombing suspects escape from Yemeni prison

©Associated Press

April 12, 2003

SANA, Yemen -- Ten men, including key suspects in the bombing of the USS Cole, escaped from a Yemeni prison Friday, dealing a major blow to the investigation into the bombing blamed on the al-Qaida terrorist network.

A massive manhunt is under way for the men, including two who U.S. counterterrorism officials say played key roles in the attack: Jamal al-Badawi and Fahd Muhammad Ahmad al-Quso.

Al-Badawi allegedly bought the dinghy packed with explosives. It was rammed by suicide bombers into the anchored destroyer refueling on Oct. 12, 2000, in the south Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors.

Details of the prison break were few, and officials said the incident was being investigated.

"A few prisoners have escaped, and there is no real evidence of any attack on the place they've been held," Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al Qirbi told the New York Times.

Qirbi said it wasn't clear how many of the missing men connected with the Cole case.

"I think some of them are," said Qirbi, "but we don't have now all the details."

An Interior Ministry official told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity that the fugitives escaped through a hole in a bathroom wall inside the room in which they were being detained.

Earlier, officials close to the investigation told the Associated Press that the men smashed a window and fled.

The different accounts could not immediately be reconciled.

The fugitives were jailed in the central intelligence building in Aden. Prison officers gave the men permission to go to the two-story complex's courtyard for their daily morning break before they escaped, the officials said.

It was unclear whether the men escaped before or after the daily break and whether they were assisted by anyone inside or outside the prison.

Officials said the men might have left Aden for al-Qaida strongholds in Shabwah province. Police searched homes belonging to relatives of the fugitives, officials said.

Photographs of the escapees have been distributed to police officers and intelligence agents. The Interior Ministry official told the Yemeni state news agency, Saba, that a reward was being offered for information leading to the escapees' capture. He did not disclose the amount.

The jailbreak likely will have major repercussions for Yemen's security apparatus, which has come under scrutiny after the Cole bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The United States has blamed Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network for both attacks.

Yemen, a tribal-dominated country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, committed to joining the war on terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks and has allowed U.S. forces to enter the country and train its military.

In November, a CIA Predator drone fired a missile at a car carrying several suspected al-Qaida operatives, killing Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, bin Laden's top operative in the country.

Yemen is bin Laden's ancestral home and has been an active breeding ground for Islamic militants. In December, a suspected Islamic militant fatally shot three U.S. Christian missionaries working at a Baptist-run hospital in Jibla.

Al-Qaida supporters in Yemen have claimed responsibility for several bombings that have targeted security and government officials during the past few months. In October, a suicide attack on a French oil tanker off the coast killed a Bulgarian crew member.

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