An Al Qaeda operative sentenced to death for plotting the USS Cole bombing that killed 17 sailors in 2000 was among a group of convicts who escaped from a Yemen prison last week, Interpol said Sunday in issuing a global security alert.
Officials set up checkpoints around the capital of San'a, where the prison was located, to try to catch the escapees before they could flee to the protection of mountain tribes, according to a Yemeni security official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Some mountainous tribal areas are essentially outside the control of Yemen's central government, raising fears the fugitives could hide there before escaping the country.
The Yemeni government made no official comment Sunday.
Yemeni officials said Jamal al-Badawi — a man convicted of plotting, preparing and helping carry out the Cole bombing — was among the fugitives, Interpol said. Al-Badawi was among those sentenced to death in September 2004 for plotting the attack, in which two suicide bombers blew up an explosives-laden boat next to the destroyer as it refueled in the Yemeni port of Aden on Oct. 12, 2000.
A Yemeni security official announced the escape of convicted Al Qaeda members Friday but did not provide any details or names. The official said only that the escapees had all had been sentenced last year on terrorism-related charges.
Interpol said in a statement that at least 13 of the 23 escapees were convicted Al Qaeda fighters.
The convicts escaped via a 140-yard-long tunnel "dug by the prisoners and coconspirators outside," Interpol said. The Yemeni official said the prison was at the central headquarters of the country's military intelligence services in a building in the center of the capital.
Another of the 23 escapees was identified as Fawaz Yahya al-Rabeiee, considered by Interpol to be one of those responsible for a 2002 attack on the French tanker Limburg off Yemen's coast. That attack killed a Bulgarian crew member and spilled 90,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Aden.
Al-Rabeiee also was convicted for an attack on a helicopter carrying Hunt Oil Co. employees a month later and the detonation of explosions at a civil aviation authority building.
"We are closely monitoring the situation at this time and we will work with our domestic and international partners to actively pursue these dangerous terrorists," FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko said in Washington.
Interpol's urgent global security alert, known as an "orange notice," was issued "because the escape and unknown whereabouts of Al Qaeda terrorists constituted a clear and present danger to all countries," the statement said.
Secretary General Ronald Noble urged Yemen, the ancestral home of Usama bin Laden, to provide names, photographs, fingerprints and other information about the suspects.
He called on the agency's 184 member states "to take all relevant precautionary measures both at and inside their borders" and to help Yemen locate and capture the fugitives.
Noble also said that unless the fugitives were tracked down, they possibly "will be able to travel internationally, to elude detection and to engage in future terrorist activity."
The escape came a day before the expected start of a trial of 15 people charged with involvement in terror operations in Yemen, including Mohammed Hamdi al-Ahdal, another suspected plotter of the Cole and Limburg bombings.
The trial was postponed indefinitely.
Yemen was long a haven for Islamic militants. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the government aligned itself with the U.S.-led war on terrorism. But many diplomats and outside experts have raised questions about Yemen's cooperation and inability to control tribal areas.