The escape from the Mukalla prison in Hadramawt province is the latest sign that Islamic militants are seizing on the mayhem to operate more freely, something the United States fears will become an increasing international threat if the impoverished nation grows even more unstable.
Hundreds of Islamic militants have also taken control of two southern towns in recent weeks.
The jailbreak in the early hours harked back to one in February 2006, when 23 al-Qaeda militants broke out of a detention facility in Sana'a, Yemen's capital. They included Nasser al-Wahishi, who went on to lead al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen branch that Washington says is already the terror network's most active.
Yemeni security officials said the escapees Wednesday included two Syrians, two Saudis, and 16 members of an al-Qaeda cell blamed for at least 13 terror attacks.
A growing al-Qaeda threat would deepen the country's predicament.
Already, much of Yemen has been paralyzed by months of massive protests demanding the ouster of longtime leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. The crisis shifted to armed street conflict between troops loyal to Saleh and rival tribal fighters.
The president of nearly 33 years was badly wounded in an attack on his Sana'a compound this month, and his departure for medical treatment in neighboring Saudi Arabia has failed to break the deadlock.
The unrest also has significantly worsened conditions for most Yemenis, whose lives had been difficult even before the start of the unrest in February. Most suffer from an acute shortage of drinking water, lengthy power cuts, and soaring food prices.More