SANAA, Yemen – At least 40 al-Qaida militants escaped from prison Wednesday in the latest sign that Yemen's political upheaval has emboldened them to challenge authorities in the country's nearly lawless south.
In a carefully choreographed escape, the militants attacked their guards and seized their weapons just as bands of heavily armed attackers descended on the prison in Mukalla on the Arabian Sea.
The escapees included militants convicted on terror charges or held in protective custody pending trial, according to officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The last major jail breakout by al-Qaida militants in Yemen took place in 2006, when 23 escaped a Sanaa detention facility including Qassim al-Raimi, who has become the dominant figure in al-Qaida's most active franchise.
The branch has been linked to several nearly successful attacks on U.S. targets, including the plot to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner in December 2009. The group also put sophisticated bombs into U.S.-addressed parcels that made it onto cargo flights.
Yemen's political crisis began when demonstrators inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia took to the streets in early February. The largely peaceful movement gave way to heavy street fighting when tribal militias took up arms in late May.
Yemen's president of nearly 33 years was badly wounded in an attack on his palace earlier this month and is undergoing medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. The head of Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation warned Tuesday in a letter to the Saudi king that Yemen could plunge into civil war if President Ali Abdullah Saleh is allowed to return home.
Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi became acting president following Saleh's departure. The opposition has accused Saleh's inner circle and family of hindering the opposition's dialogue with Hadi.