msnbc.com news services
updated 6/22/2011 11:56:21 AM ET 2011-06-22T15:56:21

Dozens of militants battled their way out of prison Wednesday in the latest sign that Yemen's political upheaval has emboldened them to challenge authorities in the country's nearly lawless south, security officials said.

In a carefully choreographed escape from the Mukalla prison in Hadramout province, 57 al-Qaida-linked militants attacked their guards and seized their weapons before they made their way through a 45-yard tunnel to freedom.

Interactive: Al-Qaida timeline (on this page)

Simultaneously, bands of gunmen opened fire at the prison from outside to divert the guards' attention, the officials said.

"The militants opened fire on the prison gates and exchanged fire with the guards, injuring two and killing one," a security official told Reuters.

The 57 were among 62 inmates who escaped. It was not immediately clear whether the other six were also Islamist militants.

All the prisoners were Yemeni and some of them had been jailed after returning from Iraq where they fought in militant ranks, an official said.

Slideshow: Yemen in the spotlight (on this page)

Authorities said many of the inmates who escaped belonged to a cell blamed for a series of attacks on security forces in the last two years. Their leader, Hamza al-Qehety, was believed to be among those who escaped on Wednesday.

Power vacuum
The U.S. and ally Saudi Arabia fear that a power vacuum and tribal warfare in Yemen will be exploited by the local wing of al-Qaida to launch attacks in the region and beyond.

The last major prison breakout by al-Qaida militants in Yemen took place in 2006, when 23 escaped a Sanaa detention facility. Among them was Nasser al-Wahishi, who went on to become the leader of al-Qaida in Yemen, as well as Qassim al-Rimi, a dominant figure in the group.

Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen has been linked to several nearly successful attacks on U.S. targets, including the plot to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner in December 2009. The group also put sophisticated bombs into U.S.-addressed parcels that made it onto cargo flights last year.

Slideshow: Political unrest in Yemen (on this page)

Al-Qaida-linked militants seized control last month of two towns in Abyan, another southern province, and briefly took control of several neighborhoods in the neighboring province of Lahj last week.

Some of these militants belong to groups that have been quietly tolerated by longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh and used to counter the weight of other extremists or against secessionists in the mostly secular south of the country.

Yemen's political crisis began when demonstrators inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia took to the streets in early February to demand Saleh's ouster. The largely peaceful movement gave way to heavy street fighting when tribal militias took up arms in late May.

Saleh, Yemen's president of nearly 33 years, was badly wounded in an attack on his Sanaa compound earlier this month and is undergoing medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. The head of Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation warned Tuesday in a letter to the Saudi king that Yemen could plunge into civil war if Saleh is allowed to return home.

Video: Attack on president puts Yemen step closer to civil war (on this page)

Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi became acting president after Saleh's departure. The opposition has accused Saleh's inner circle and family of hindering the opposition's dialogue with Hadi.

Saleh has exasperated his rich Gulf Arab neighbors by three times agreeing to step down, only to pull out of a transition plan at the last minute and cling on to power.

An aide to Saleh said on Wednesday his health was on the mend and that he had been receiving guests and giving instructions on day-to-day affairs in Yemen.

Meanwhile, A senior U.S. official pressed the Yemeni government on Wednesday to implement a Gulf Arab initiative calling for Saleh to step down, Yemeni officials said. A Yemeni government source said Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, met Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi and Hadi.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: July

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  1. A man prepares the grave of Hassan al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa, July 19. Fighting between government forces and opposition supporters erupted in Yemen's capital Sanaa on Monday, killing six people, among them al-Hora, opposition sources said. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz, July 19. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A girl has ''will not leave'' written on her face during a rally to support Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa July 17. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Anti-government protestors shout slogans during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Wednesday, July 13. (Mohammed Hamoud / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. An anti-government protester writes slogans on a wall using his own blood during a rally to demand the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh at Tagheer square in Sanaa on July 13. The words read "In my blood I protect Yemen." (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Girls light candles as they attend a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz July 9. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A Yemeni anti-government protester displays bullets allegedly fired by supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh during a demonstration demanding Saleh’s ousting, in Sana'a, Yemen on July 8. (Yahya Arhab / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh sit on stone pillars during a rally in support of President Saleh in Sana'a, Yemen, on July 8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh staged rallies around his vacant palace Friday after their leader's first TV appearance since being injured in a blast last month and leaving for treatment in Saudi Arabia. (Mohammed Al-Sayaghi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A supporter of Saleh kisses his picture as his supporters celebrate in Sanaa on July 7 after he appeared on television for the first time since he was severely wounded in an assassination attempt. (Mohammed Huwais / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Saleh delivers a speech from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on July 7, making his first public appearance since he was wounded in an attack on his palace in Sanaa in June. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Anti-government protesters join their hands and shout slogans demanding an end to the 32-year regime of President Saleh, in Sanaa on July 6. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A police vehicle is set ablaze during clashes between armed followers of the opposition and police in the southern city of Taiz on July 6. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A relative of victims of recent clashes talks to a member of the United Nations human rights investigation team, left, in Sanaa on July 5. The U.N. team arrived in Yemen last week to assess the situation in the country after months of unrest. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Women recite prayers during a rally to demand the ouster of President Saleh in the southern city of Taiz on July 1. Tens of thousands of Yemenis turned Friday prayers into rallies for and against Saleh, who is recovering from injuries sustained in an assassination attempt in June. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Man prepares the grave of al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa
    Suhaib Salem / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (14) Political unrest in Yemen - July
  2. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (39) Political unrest in Yemen - June
  3. Image: Anti-government protests in Yemen
    Wadia Mohammed / EPA
    Slideshow (59) Political unrest in Yemen - May
  4. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (25) Political unrest in Yemen - April
  5. Image: Tens of thousands of Yemenis take to the
    AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (67) Political unrest in Yemen - Earlier photos
  6. YEMEN
    Karim Ben Khelifa
    Slideshow (20) Yemen in the spotlight

Video: Nearly 100,000 take to Yemen streets in protest

Timeline: Al-Qaida timeline

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