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Report: Two confess to helping 63 inmates escape in Yemen

From Hakim Almasmari, For CNN
Police stand guard in the Yemeni city of Mukalla, where 63 prisoners escaped last week.
Police stand guard in the Yemeni city of Mukalla, where 63 prisoners escaped last week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Interior ministry official: 63 members of al Qaeda escaped last week, according to SABA
  • State media: A prison warden and guards are suspended and being questioned
  • An opposition bloc spokesman says he thinks ruling family loyalists are responsible
  • He says he thinks the government would create chaos to stay in power

(CNN) -- Two prisoners have confessed to digging a tunnel that led to the escape of 63 inmates last week, Yemen's state-run SABA news agency reported Sunday.

Dozens of suspected al Qaeda militants escaped Wednesday from a jail in the Yemeni city of Mukalla, a senior security official said.

An Interior Ministry official said 63 members of al Qaeda had managed to break out of Almakla prison, according to SABA. He said three inmates were killed, another two were arrested, and a prison guard was killed. He asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Some of the escapees had already been convicted; others were awaiting trial, the official told SABA. They escaped through a 35-meter (115-foot) tunnel, he said.

Witnesses said armed militants began attacking the prison at about 8 a.m. and fired heavy artillery before the escape.

Suspected al Qaeda jailbreak in Yemen
Prison break in Yemen
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The prison warden, his deputy and a number of guards have been suspended for questioning, SABA said Sunday.

Mohammed Qahtan, spokesman for Yemen's largest opposition bloc, Joint Meetings Parties, said he thinks security officials loyal to the ruling family are responsible for the escape and that the government would create chaos to stay in power.

Yemen has been consumed by unrest for months as protesters have demanded an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule. In recent weeks, government troops have battled both anti-government tribal forces and Islamic militants, including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Saleh and other senior officials were wounded June 3 in an attack on the mosque at the presidential palace and taken to Saudi Arabia for treatment.

In recent days, the Yemeni government's control has been receding, said Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "There are instances where you can say that the Yemeni government is instigating some of this chaos -- with the goal to demonstrate to the United States, Saudi Arabia and others that this regime -- the government of President Saleh -- is the best to fight al Qaeda."

Boucek said the Yemeni government is more concerned with protecting itself from the popular revolt than with going after al Qaeda. As a result, he said, the government has repositioned its counter-terrorism forces, retreating from areas such as Abyan province where it had lost ground and circling the wagons.

However, a Yemeni official briefed on security operations rejected Boucek's conclusion. "What about the blood of 66 soldiers?" he said, citing the number of soldiers who he said have died in Abyan province alone in recent weeks. Another 291 soldiers have been wounded in operations there that killed six of the most wanted al Qaeda operatives and 40 other militants, he said.

The United States has been aiding Yemen's military in its fight against Islamic militants amid fears that al Qaeda is exploiting the political chaos and leadership vacuum engulfing the unstable and impoverished Arabian Peninsula country.

CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom and Brian Todd contributed to this story.

 
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