WASHINGTON – The White House expressed "enormous concern" Thursday about the threat posed by 23 escaped terrorists as U.S. Navy ships patrolled the coast of Yemen in a multinational effort to recapture them.
Meanwhile, a Yemeni official said authorities had detained prison staff members suspected of passing information and tools to help prisoners escape.
Navy officials would not say how many or what types of ships were helping in the operation to find the fugitives, convicted members of Al Qaeda who tunneled out of a cell in a Yemeni prison.
The patrols began Thursday, nearly a week after the escape that included an Al Qaeda operative sentenced to death for plotting the USS Cole bombing in 2000.
The Bush administration has spoken with Yemeni officials, through the U.S. ambassador, to express disappointment that the prisoners were housed together and that restrictions in the prison were not more stringent.
"I find the developments in Yemen not only deeply disappointing, but of enormous concern to us, especially given the capabilities and the expertise of the people who were there," Frances Fragos Townsend, assistant to President Bush for homeland security and counterterrorism, told reporters Thursday in a conference call following Bush's speech here on terrorism.
She said the United States also was working with Saudi Arabia because that nation had turned a number of individuals back to Yemen who have now escaped.
"Our allies in Saudi Arabia face as great, if not a greater, threat by virtue of this escape than we do," she said.
A Yemeni official involved in the inquiry into the escape said Thursday that "many" warders had been suspended and detained since investigators began interrogating staff on Monday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press, refused to give the number of staff that had been suspended, but said they had passed information and tools to the prisoners taking part in the escape.
The official said security forces have detained more than 80 people in connection with the breakout. They include the prison warders, relatives of the fugitives and members of Islamic groups. The forces have also set up checkpoints around the country to search for the fugitives.
The U.S. ships are part of a Dutch-led task force of ships from different countries that routinely patrols the international waters of the Gulf of Oman, the North Arabian Sea and other parts of the region.
According to Lt. Herb Josey, a Navy spokesman, the U.S. ships are there to counteract any attempts by terrorists to launch an attack or use the waters to escape. The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is in the region, and some 7,500 sailors are on the ships in the Roosevelt strike group.
The prisoners escaped Friday, apparently by digging a tunnel some 180 yards long that emerged at a mosque. The tunnel was dug with help from conspirators on the outside, according to Interpol.
The prisoners shared the same cell in an underground prison beneath the headquarters for the political security forces. Interpol has said the fugitives included Jamal al-Badawi -- convicted of plotting, preparing and helping carry out the Cole bombing that killed 17 sailors in a Yemeni port.
Another escapee was identified as Fawaz Yahya al-Rabeei, considered by Interpol to be among 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.
AP reporter Ahmed Al-Haj in Yemen contributed to this report.