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Mystery shrouds alqaeda escape in yemen

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2/6/2006 9:44:00 AM -0500
Intl. Intelligence
Mystery shrouds al-Qaida escape in Yemen

SANAA, Yemen, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- The mysterious escape of 23 dangerous al-Qaida operatives from a high-security prison in Yemen is bound to further strain U.S.-Yemeni relations.

Observers expressed fears that the flight of the convicted terrorists will increase tensions in relations between Sanaa and Washington, and expose serious deficiencies in the Yemeni security system.

"We do not know exactly what is going on behind the scenes in terms of reactions to the incident and its direct impact on Yemeni-U.S. relations, which have been extremely tense in the past phase," said political commentator and journalist Mounir Mawri.

"But one thing is certain is that regardless of the explanations of the incident, it will have sequels and consequences that should be taken seriously inside and outside Yemen," Mawri told the local English-language daily News.

U.S. anti-terror agencies, which are strongly present and rooted in Yemen, have not shown any special concern over the mass escape of al-Qaida operatives, including the main plotter of the attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden in October 2000 in which 17 U.S. servicemen perished.

Official sources disclosed that 18 of the 23 al-Qaida operatives were tried and convicted in terrorist attacks, including the attack on the USS Cole and the French giant tanker, the Limburg. They were also convicted of forming terrorist cells and plotting to carry out attacks on foreign targets, especially American.

Mawri said the escape incident could be explained in two ways. One implies that the Yemeni government is honest and one should believe that the prisoners took advantage of security breaches. This is a very dangerous assumption because it exposes the deficiency of the security system and increases the risk of terrorist attacks since the 23 escapees will be probably carrying out terrorist attacks inside and outside Yemen.

A second explanation could be that the mass escape was orchestrated by the authorities in an attempt to evade international pressures for handing them over to the West as a proof of Sanaa's genuine bid to combat terrorism, Mawri said.

"The authorities might have decided to facilitate the escape or transfer the convicts to another place, not in order to hand them over to the U.S. as some may think, but to get rid of them and the dangers of keeping them alive," Mawri added.

For his part, Politburo chief of the opposition Nasserite Movement Mohammed Sabry, called for a comprehensive revision of Yemen's political economic and security conditions, stressing that the mass escape indicates the weakness of security agencies.

"This incident harmed Yemen's reputation and placed it in an embarrassing situation before the international community, especially that the escapees were involved in the attacks on Limburg and USS Cole," Sabry told United Press International.

Mawri contended that if the escape took place in complicity with the authorities "one should sound the alarm and expect official bias towards terrorist organizations.

"But a more dangerous thing is that if al-Qaida was capable to bluff the authorities," he said, adding "in that case the authorities will end the undeclared truce with the network and start tracking down its members and sources of financing, probably leading to an open-ended war until one party defeats the other."

Human rights activist Khaled Unssi expressed fears that the authorities might have facilitated the escape on purpose, in order to transfer the prisoners to a third country as a prelude to handing them over to the U.S.

He said he wonders if the whole thing was premeditated in order to deport the convicts to the United States since the Yemeni constitution bans the handover of any Yemeni citizen to a foreign country.

Politburo chief of the opposition Social Party Ali Sarari also wondered if what happened was "an escape" or "orchestrated escape."

"If it was an escape, that means the security situation has become tragic and a source of great fears, and if it was orchestrated, investigations should clearly disclose what happened exactly," Sarari told UPI.

Official media disclosed for the first time the names of the runaway prisoners, including Jamal al-Badawi, the second main convict in the bombing of the USS Cole, and Fawwaz Rabii, the main convict in the attack on the French tanker and plotter of several bombings that hit Sanaa in recent years and who was sentenced to death.

In the meantime, Yemen's main security leaders continue their investigation into the incident to unveil the circumstances of the operation and whether the prisoners were assisted by members from inside the security agencies.

International police, INTERPOL, sent an "urgent global security alert" for the 23 who tunneled out of the prison in Yemen.

Interpol said the group escaped via a 150-yard-long tunnel "dug by the prisoners and co-conspirators outside."

Hundreds of suspected al-Qaida members are detained in Yemeni prisons. Lately, 206 have been released in batches after repenting and vowing to abandon violence.

Copyright 2006 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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