At least 40 militants reportedly escape from Yemeni prison

Yemen's chaos could embolden militants, worry Western observers. But it's still unclear whether any of the reportedly escaped militants are from Al Qaeda.

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At least 40 militants reportedly escaped from a southern Yemen prison Wednesday, several news outlets reported, underscoring Western fears that militants would be emboldened and empowered by the current chaos in the country.

But Yemen scholars and reporters have expressed doubts about the validity of the reports and the danger posed by the inmates who may have escaped.

Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government has been accused in the past of exaggerating the threat posed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other militant groups in order to justify his grip on power and gain more US aid. Mr. Saleh, who is currently convalescing in Saudi Arabia, has argued that the country could fall to AQAP without his leadership.

The escapees from the prison in the coastal city of Mukalla reportedly include militants who were imprisoned on terror charges, Associated Press reports. It's unclear how many of those who escaped are members of the local Al Qaeda franchise, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has been responsible for launching several attacks on the US in recent years. Agence France-Presse reports that the prison held at least 100 members of AQAP.

No list of the escapees has been made public yet. Christian Science Monitor reporter Jeb Boone expressed doubt that any of the AQAP escapees were big names in the organization.

But Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar from Princeton University suggests that the climate in prison could have turned even unknown militants into more of a threat. He wrote on Twitter, "Hard to say [who may have escaped], but prisons in Yemen have become radicalization factories, so however this happened and whoever is involved, it's bad."

Yemen's military and security forces have showed signs of strain amid an uprising that began in force in February. Several key leaders have defected to the opposition, and powerful tribesmen have been fighting loyalist forces for weeks in the capital. Many areas of the country outside the capital of Sanaa had a weaker rule of law even before the uprising began and the distraction of the military and security forces has exacerbated it.

When militants seized the southern Yemen city of Zinjibar last month, some in the opposition accused President Saleh of intentionally allowing the city to fall into militants' hands in order to drum up support from people fearful of a militant takeover. Many more said that he was to blame because he had ordered security forces security back to Sanaa to contain the uprising.

In 2006, 23 militants escaped a Sanaa detention facility. Among them was Qassim al-Raimi, who is reportedly one of the leaders of AQAP, according to AP.

AQAP is responsible for two failed recent attacks – the attempt in October 2010 to mail bombs in packages bound for the US and the so-called underwear bomber who attempted to blow up a Detriot-bound flight in December 2009.

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