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Warships aid search for Yemeni escapees

From Barbara Starr
CNN Washington Bureau

Among the escapees was Gamal Ahmed Badawi, considered the mastermind of the USS Cole attack.



U.S. Navy
United States
Acts of terror

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- International warships under the command of the U.S. Navy moved Thursday into waters off Yemen, attempting to block possible escape routes for 23 prisoners who escaped last week, a senior U.S. military official said.

The ships, stationed about 14 miles (22 kilometers) offshore, will patrol busy international waters near Yemen.

The vessels moved into the area within the last 48 hours. They are under the command of the U.S. Navy Central Command in Bahrain. (Map of region)

Interpol, the international crime-fighting organization, has said that at least 13 of the 23 who escaped prison Friday were "convicted al Qaeda terrorists, some of whom were involved in attacks on U.S. and French ships in 2000 and 2002."

Among the escapees were the reputed mastermind of the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, Gamal Ahmed Badawi, and Jaber Elbaneh, a U.S. citizen. (Watch where officials think the fugitives might go -- 1:41 )

Badawi was sentenced to death in September 2004 for orchestrating the Cole attack while it was docked in Aden, Yemen. Seventeen sailors were killed and 39 others wounded when two suicide bombers detonated an explosives-laden boat next to the destroyer.

Elbaneh is charged in the United States with providing material support to terrorists and was a member of a cell near Buffalo, New York, the FBI said.

Elbaneh, 39, dodged the fate of six of his counterparts, who pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges in 2003 and are serving seven- to 10-year sentences in federal prison.

The United States has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Elbaneh, who is suspected of traveling with the other six men to Afghanistan to train at an al Qaeda camp.

"Elbaneh is considered dangerous and is a threat to the U.S. and its interests. The FBI will work with its domestic and international partners to locate and arrest Jaber Elbaneh," FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said.

If the fugitives are not caught in the next month, the United States may have to reconsider its presence in Yemen, which includes an embassy and small military contingent in Sanaa, according to the senior sources.

The longer they remain at large, the greater the security risk to Americans inside Yemen, the sources said.

Escape an inside job?

Investigators are exploring the possibility that the recent jailbreak was an inside job involving members of the Yemeni security forces, said sources familiar with the investigation.

Some of the prison staff have been detained for questioning, sources said.

The prisoners escaped through a 150-yard (140-meter) tunnel to a nearby mosque. Government-supported Yemeni newspapers have reported that inmates chanted inside the prison to mask the sound of digging, and officials at a nearby mosque were aware of the digging but ignored it.

Interpol has issued an "international blue notice" for the escapees, clearing the way for other nations to detain the men even if there is no formal arrest warrant.

CNN's Terry Frieden and Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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