Sixty-three suspected al-Qaeda militants escaped from a jail in Yemen, highlighting its growing insecurity as the U.S. pushed for political transition in a country that borders the world’s top crude oil exporter.
The prisoners escaped yesterday via a tunnel they dug under their cells in the coastal city of Mukalla in Hadramout province, a Yemeni intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media. One snatched a gun, killing a guard and wounding another.
Reports of clashes between Yemeni forces and al-Qaeda have increased amid protests calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is in neighboring Saudi Arabia recovering from injuries sustained in a June 3 attack on his compound. He has said the unrest is emboldening al-Qaeda, which has used Yemen as a base. Troops are also battling Shiite Muslim Houthis, who say they face discrimination from the majority Sunni.
“If you look at all the power centers here they are preparing themselves for post-Saleh period,” Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism research at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, said by phone today. “The Houthis are sitting and waiting and they are going to take advantage of the next government’s weakness. Al-Qaeda has the same strategy. The jailbreak is part of that strategy.”
Three escapees were killed and two others captured, Yemen’s Interior Ministry said in a text message. Fifty-seven of those who fled the jail had been convicted of terrorism and the 12 most dangerous belong to the Tarmin cell, whose leader, Hamza al-Quaiti, was killed in clashes with police in 2008, the official said. A similar incident took place in 2006, when 23 al-Qaeda militants escaped from a jail in Sana’a, the capital.
About 400 gunmen seized control of parts of a city in southern Yemen for several hours on June 15.
While operating in Yemen, al-Qaeda has sought to destabilize Saudi Arabia, the top producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and plot attacks, including an attempt to bomb two U.S. synagogues last year.
A weak central government in Yemen risks mirroring the situation in Somalia, across the Gulf of Aden, where there hasn’t been a functioning administration since 1991. Somalia has become a breeding ground for pirates who attack shipping lanes.
“The instability in Yemen is the kind that al-Qaeda feeds on or tries to take advantage, exploit, throughout the world,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
Envoy in Sana’a
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman met with Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi, who is acting as president while Saleh recovers.
At a press conference in Sana’a today, Feltman said the U.S. government has no information on Saleh’s condition or whether he will return to Yemen. He urged political parties to sign a proposed Gulf Cooperation Council agreement calling for Saleh to step down within 30 days and turn the leadership over to Hadi in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
“We continue to believe that an immediate peaceful and orderly transition is in the best interest of the Yemeni people,” Feltman said. “We urge all sides to engage in dialogue that peacefully moves Yemen forward.”
Feltman praised Hadi’s to efforts maintain a cease-fire with armed opposition factions, according to Yemen’s state-run news agency. Hadi told Feltman that he appreciates President Barack Obama’s efforts to “defuse tensions” in Yemen, the agency said.
The U.S. is pressing for Yemen to move ahead with the GCC plan to start a process of democratic reforms, Toner told reporters in Washington.
“The Americans are also building their strategy,” Alani said. “They think that Yemen is heading toward a chaotic situation and the next government will not be able to handle the situation so they are preparing themselves to take on the fight against al-Qaeda on their own if they need to.”
Any government that succeeds Saleh’s probably will “sink into the internal fighting as well,” Alani said.
Saleh has refused to sign the GCC accord three times, and officials have said he will return to office when he is healthy enough to do so. U.S. officials have said Saleh has burns to his face and 40 percent of his body.
“The real question here is whether he is going to live,” Charles Schmitz, an associate professor of geography and Yemen expert at Towson University near Baltimore, said by e-mail. “He is seriously wounded.”
If he recovers and returns, “it would increase tensions in Yemen significantly,” said Schmitz, who is in Istanbul organizing a conference on Yemen.
Protesters have been calling for Saleh to step down since January. Saudi Arabia has led the efforts to pressure the Yemeni leader to quit.
Yemeni forces killed about 20 suspected al-Qaeda militants in airstrikes and clashes in the province of Abyan on June 20, said Ahmed al-Rawhi, the deputy provincial governor. The previous day, the army killed 17 members of the group, according to the Defense Ministry.