Calling the escapees "dangerous individuals", the international police agency issued an "urgent global security alert" for the 23 on Sunday.

The Friday escape had been reported by a Yemen security official who said at the time that they were convicted al-Qaida members but provided no other details.

A statement from Interpol, based in Lyon in southeast France, said at least 13 of the 23 escapees were convicted al-Qaida members.

They escaped via a 140-metre long tunnel "dug by the prisoners and co-conspirators outside".

Orange notice

Yemeni officials confirmed to Interpol that a man considered the mastermind of the 2000 bomb attack on the USS Cole, identified as Jamal Ahmed Badawi, was among those who escaped.

Also among the escapees was Fawaz Yahya Al-Rabeei, identified by Interpol as one of those responsible for the 2002 attack on the French tanker Limburg off Yemen's coast.

The bomb attack of 2000 on
USS Cole killed 17 US soldiers

That attack killed a Bulgarian crew member and spilled 90,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Aden.

Interpol's urgent global security alert, known as an Orange Notice, was personally issued by General Ronald K Noble, the Interpol secretary, "because the escape and unknown whereabouts of al-Qaida terrorists constituted a clear and present danger to all countries", the statement said.

Noble urged Yemen to provide names, photographs, fingerprints and other information to the police agency so that wanted persons notices can be issued.

Arrest warrants

Such notices can only be issued at the request of a country, and supported by national arrest warrants.

A Yemen security official, speaking on condition of anonymity at the time of the escape, said the 23 escaped from prison in Yemen's capital, Sanaa.

He described the prison as a detention centre for military intelligence and said the escapees had all been sentenced last year on various terrorism-related charges.

The escape came just before a trial of 15 people, including a top al-Qaida suspect in the USS Cole bombing, Mohammed Hamdi al-Ahdal, also suspected in the French oil tanker attack.