CAIRO, Egypt - Ten men, including suspects in the bombing of the USS Cole, escaped from a high-security Yemeni prison yesterday, officials said.
One of the missing suspects was Jamal al-Badawi, who is believed to have procured the small boat that was loaded with explosives and driven into the ship as it was refueling off the southern Yemeni port of Aden in October 2000. Seventeen American sailors were killed and 38 others were injured in the suicide bombing, which caused a 40-foot-by-60-foot hole in the ship.
Details of the escape were scanty, and officials said the incident was still being investigated.
"A few prisoners have escaped, and there is no real evidence of any attack on the place they've been held," Abu Bakr al-Kerbi, Yemen's foreign minister, said in a telephone interview from San`a.
It was not clear whether all 10 missing men were connected with the Cole case. "I think some of them are," Qirbi said, "but we don't have now all the details."
According to news service reports, other Yemeni officials said the prisoners escaped by breaking through a window. They also said a large-scale manhunt was under way in Aden and beyond.
In all, 17 men were being held in the Aden prison on suspicion of helping the Cole suicide bombers. Yemeni newspapers have reported that none had yet been officially charged in the case, although the state's investigation had been completed and presented for prosecution.
The Cole bombing has been blamed on Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. And Badawi, the chief suspect in custody, has reportedly told Yemeni investigators that he had trained at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan.
In the past, escaped prisoners and terrorism suspects have fled to tribal areas that are largely out of the control of the central government.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, when President Bush promised to punish any country that aided terrorists, Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh has tried to prove that he is cooperating with American efforts to hunt down al-Qaida operatives.
Saleh has allowed American special forces to operate in Yemen, in part to train the country's security troops. And American military surveillance planes have been used to scour the remote desert areas for wanted men.