Sana’a - 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 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.
Seven members of the security forces were killed and four wounded in the assault, the spokesman added.
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.
In October, security forces foiled an attempt by 300 al-Qaeda inmates to escape after they mutinied in another Sana’a 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 same Sana’a prison attacked on Thursday with 22 other members of AQAP.
He was named the group's leader a year later.
They broke out through a 44m tunnel they had dug between a cell and a nearby mosque.
AQAP took advantage of the weakening of the central government in Sana’a after a popular uprising in 2011 forced president Ali Abdullah Saleh from power early the following year.