BERLIN -- An Al Qaeda jail break in Yemen bears the hallmarks of an ''inside job" and raises questions about the effectiveness of a key Arab partner in the war on terrorism, US and European security officials say.
The 23 inmates who escaped through a 460-foot tunnel hollowed under their prison to a nearby mosque included not just leaders of deadly attacks on a US warship and a French oil tanker, but also, it emerged days later, a Yemeni-American with a $5 million US reward on his head.
Western annoyance at the security breach has been compounded by a perception that Yemen has been slow to respond and -- despite its statements to the contrary -- less than fully cooperative with the world police organization Interpol.
One week after the escape, none of the men has been recaptured. Interpol distributed alerts for them on Tuesday but said it had not been able to issue its highest grade of international wanted notice because it was still waiting for the Yemenis to supply the men's fingerprints and arrest warrants.
In Washington, Frances Townsend, a White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, said yesterday that the prison escape was of ''enormous concern" to the United States and that Saudi Arabia also faces a threat due to the jail break.
The Pentagon said US Navy ships are helping patrol the international waters off the coast of Yemen to capture the escapees if they flee by sea.
''I find the developments in Yemen not only deeply disappointing but of enormous concern to us, especially given the capabilities and the expertise of the people who were there," Townsend said.
''We are disappointed that they were all housed together. We are disappointed that their restrictions in prison weren't more stringent," she told reporters.
The United States also is working with Saudi Arabia, which had turned over to Yemen a number of those who have now escaped, Townsend said.
A European counterterrorism official said the ''limited" Yemeni response reinforced the impression that the escape took place with at least some help from the authorities. ''It's impossible it was staged without any involvement of prisons guards, prison administration, etc. It's too big, too well premeditated, too well prepared. There must be some involvement of, let's say, official elements in Yemen," he said.