Up to 40, perhaps many more, al-Qaeda militants have escaped from a jail in southern Yemen, according to prison officials.

The inmates, some of whom who were convicted of terrorism charges, reportedly fought their way out of a facility in Mukalla in the Hadramut province with the help of fellow militants who attacked the prison from outside.

However, there is some confusion over how many escaped and who helped them do so.

According to other reports, as many as 62 prisoners escaped (two of whom have been re-arrested), while one member of the security forces was killed during the breakout.

Nasser Bakazzuz, a spokesman for civil society organizations in Hadramut, claimed that the “escape” was orchestrated; that is, state officials allowed them to flee the prison in order to discredit the opposition movement.

The regime is living its last days and wants to create chaos in Hadramut province, he told Agence France Presse.

Al-Qaeda has long been known to have an active cell operating in Yemen and fears have spread that the unrest in the country might provide the terrorist group with an opening into the corridors of power. Indeed, president Ali Abdullah Saleh has warned that should he be removed from office, the ensuing chaos in the country would permit groups like al-Qaeda to flourish.

Saleh is currently recuperating in Saudi Arabia after he suffered injuries in an attack at his presidential palace last month. It’s unclear when (or if) he will ever return to Yemen.

The al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was accused of trying to blow up an American commercial airplane in Detroit, Michigan in late 2009.

In 2006, 26 al-Qaeda inmates escaped a detention camp in the capital Sanaa.