The escaped fugitives include chief suspect Jamal al-Badawi who had been jailed in Yemen shortly after the attack on the Cole in October 2000. Al-Badawi allegedly helped buy the dinghy that was loaded with explosives and rammed into the side the Navy ship as it refueled in the port of Aden in Yemen, killing 17 American soldiers and wounding 39 others.
The suicide attack on the Cole marked the first time a modern American warship was successfully targeted by terrorists and was widely blamed on Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network. Seventeen men were arrested in the wake of the attack.
The suspects reportedly got out through a prison window and guards did not discover their absence for at least an hour, unnamed officials told the Agence France-Presse.
Officials at Aden’s governor’s office would not provide details to Reuters or the Associated Press as to how the men escaped early Friday, but did say that security forces had launched a major search operation for the 10 men.
Photographs of the suspects were given to police and the suspects’ relatives’ houses were searched, according to media reports.
Officials said that the men might have left Aden for al-Qaida strongholds in the northern province of Shabwah. Yemen is bin Laden’s ancestral homeland and is considered to house many al-Qaida supporters.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., Yemen committed itself to joining the war on terrorism and has permitted American forces to enter the country and train its military.