Yemen release of wanted Qaeda militant irks U.S.

SANAA, Feb 27 (Reuters) - The United States has complained to Yemen after the Arab country allowed an al Qaeda suspect on the U.S. list of most wanted militants to walk free from court, U.S. diplomatic sources said on Wednesday.

Jaber Elbaneh, a Yemeni-American thought to be a major figure in the fatal bombing of the U.S. warship Cole in 2000, was among 23 prisoners, including convicted al Qaeda militants, who tunnelled their way out of a Sanaa jail in February 2006.

He turned himself in to the authorities in May 2007.

He had been sentenced in absentia to more than a decade in jail but Yemeni law demands a retrial when someone sentenced in absentia surrenders. The new trial will begin on March 9.

"We are disturbed Jaber Elbaneh is not in prison," a U.S. diplomatic source said. "We believe it is essential that all nations committed to ending terrorism act decisively to ensure that those convicted of perpetrating terrorist acts are held accountable for the crimes they have committed."

Yemen said it supported the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, but the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden is still viewed in the West as a haven for Islamic militants.

Dozens of militants are jailed in Yemen for involvement in bombings of Western targets and clashes with the authorities.

Elbaneh is on the list of "Most Wanted Terrorists" in the United States, where he is charged with providing material support to a "terrorist organisation" and conspiring to provide material support to al Qaeda, the U.S. sources said.

The State Department is offering up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest.

Yemen says Elbaneh also helped plan the 2002 attack on the French oil supertanker Limburg off Yemen's coast.

He is linked to the "Lackawanna Six" and wanted by the FBI. The Lackawanna Six refers to a group of Yemeni-Americans who attended an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in 2001. The cell was named after the men's home town in New York state.

The 2006 jailbreak embarrassed the government and raised questions among Western allies about Yemen's security measures, but a Yemeni judicial source said the court decision was legal.

"The release of Jaber Elbaneh on bail is a sound judicial move as he attended the hearing and asked for a copy of the charge sheet so he can defend himself at the March 9 hearing," the source said.

Al Qaeda in Yemen vowed in January to free its prisoners from the country's jails to retaliate for the killing of militants by the government of the Arabian Peninsula country.

The U.S. sources said the U.S. ambassador had "expressed the U.S. government's displeasure to the Yemeni foreign minister".

The United States asked Yemen to hand over Elbaneh when he was in Yemeni custody in January 2004. He was never extradited, the sources said. (Reporting by Alistair Lyon; Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Elizabeth Piper)