Yemeni security forces were on Friday hunting down 29 inmates, including 19 suspected Al-Qaeda members, who broke out of jail in a deadly assault in the capital.
The official Saba news agency cited an interior ministry statement as saying 29 people convicted “of various terrorist and criminal charges” escaped when a blast breached the facility’s outer wall on Thursday.
Security officials said the two-pronged assault began when an explosives-laden vehicle slammed into the eastern gate just after sunset.
Gunmen simultaneously attacked guards at the main entrance, creating a diversion that allowed some prisoners to escape through the hole.
“Nineteen of those who broke out are accused of committing terrorist acts,” a ministry spokesman told Saba, adding that security forces were trying to track down the fugitives.
He said the vehicle bomb blew a five-metre (16-foot) hole in the outer wall before the assailants opened up with grenades on several guard posts.
The 29 escaped during the ensuing exchange of fire, he said.
He said “a terrorist group” was behind the attack, referring to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), viewed by Washington as the extremist franchise’s deadliest branch.
Prison authority chief General Mohammed al-Zaleb said 11 members of the security forces were killed in the assault. The interior ministry had said seven died.
Confirming Zaleb’s toll, a security official said “10 members of our force were killed, among them a colonel, while a special forces agent was shot dead at the entrance of the central prison where he was on duty.”
Zaleb said between “50 and 60 assailants” took part in the assault, with militants first attacking the headquarters of the prison authority located opposite the central prison and then detonating a car bomb at the prison’s gate.
He accused “Al-Qaeda members” of carrying out the assault, saying the jihadist network had threatened to attack the central prison.
Initial reports on Thursday put the number of escapees at 14, “mostly Al-Qaeda inmates”. They also said three attackers were killed.
Officials say the prison holds around 5,000 inmates.
Among those who escaped, is Mubarak Hadi al-Shabwani, described as one of Al-Qaeda leaders, who was arrested on December 14, 2009 and sentenced to death in 2010 for carrying out several lethal attacks targeting members of the security, a security official said.
In October, security forces foiled an attempt by some 300 Al-Qaeda inmates to escape after they mutinied in another Sanaa prison.
A number of guards and inmates were wounded in that incident, but none was killed.
AQAP chief Nasser al-Wuhayshi vowed in August last year to free incarcerated members of his group.
Wuhayshi himself escaped in February 2006 from the political security prison in Sanaa with 22 other members of AQAP.
He was named the group’s leader a year later.
AQAP took advantage of the weakening of the central government in Sanaa after a popular uprising in 2011 forced president Ali Abdullah Saleh from power early the following year.