SANAA, Yemen — Dozens of al Qaeda 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 Qaeda-linked militants attacked their guards and seized their weapons before they made their way through a 45-yard tunnel to freedom.
Simultaneously, bands of gunmen opened fire at the prison from outside to divert the guards’ attention, the officials said.
At least one guard was killed and another wounded, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The 57 were among 62 inmates who escaped. It was not clear whether the other five were also Islamic militants.
The officials said many of the inmates who escaped belonged to a local Hadramout cell blamed for a series of attacks on security forces in the past two years.
Their leader, Hamza al-Qehety, was killed in a clash with security forces in 2008, but several of the cell’s senior members were believed to be among those who escaped Wednesday.
The last major breakout by al Qaeda militants in Yemen occurred in 2006, when 23 escaped a Sanaa detention facility. Among them was Nasser al-Wahishi, who went on to become the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, and Qassim al-Rimi, a dominant figure in the group.
Al Qaeda-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 southern part 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 Mr. Saleh’s ouster.
The largely peaceful movement gave way to heavy street fighting when tribal militias took up arms in late May.
Mr. Saleh, Yemen’s president of nearly 33 years, was severely wounded in an attack on his Sanaa compound this month and is getting medical treatment in Saudi Arabia.