Yemeni forces killed three men Saturday who were among nearly 60 suspected Al Qaeda militants who escaped from prison this past week, officials said.

The three escapees were awaiting execution in the Mukalla prison in southern Yemen, where inmates attacked guards, seized their weapons and fled through a tunnel on Wednesday in another sign that Islamic militants are making gains amid Yemen's political turmoil.

Nearly four months of anti-government protests have left the country's president of more than three decades clinging to power. President Ali Abdullah Saleh's forces have failed to silence the dissent with a bloody crackdown and have even been drawn into street battles with tribesmen who have turned against him. An attack on his palace in the capital this month badly wounded him and forced him to fly to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.

The spiraling unrest has raised fears that Yemen's Al Qaeda franchise will seize the opportunity and carve out more room to operate freely and plot attacks on the West from its redoubts in the country's remote and mountainous hinterlands.

Besides the prison escape, Islamic militants, including some believed to be linked to Al Qaeda, have taken over two towns in southern Yemen in recent weeks.

In Saturday's confrontation, the three prison escapees were killed during a chase.

Two of them had been hit by gunfire, but the circumstances of the third man's death were unclear, medical officials said.

A security official said an investigation of the breakout showed prisoners had mobile phones and digging equipment.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.