Two suspected al Qaeda operatives who escaped from a Yemeni prison last month have been indicted in the United States on murder and terrorism charges in the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors, government officials announced yesterday.

The men, Jamal Badawi and Fahd Quso, were indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on 50 terrorism-related counts, including murder of U.S. nationals and murder of U.S. military personnel. The men, who could face the death penalty if convicted, are at large after breaking out of prison in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa last month.

"Badawi and Quso are alleged to be longtime al Qaeda terrorist associates who were trained in the al Qaeda terrorist camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s," Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said at a news conference. "They were schooled in Osama bin Laden's hate and vowed to attack and kill Americans wherever and whenever they could, especially American nationals on the Arabian Peninsula."

The Cole was attacked while refueling in Aden harbor. Two suicide bombers rammed the warship with a small boat laden with explosives, setting off a blast that tore a 40-foot hole in its hull, killed 17 sailors and injured more than 40.

The defendants named yesterday plotted the bombing campaign against U.S warships with al Qaeda's senior leadership -- including Osama bin Laden and two other senior operatives now in U.S. custody, according to the indictment, which was unsealed yesterday. A previous attempt to attack a U.S. warship failed in January 2000 when a small boat launched to attack the USS The Sullivans in Aden harbor sank under the weight of its explosive cargo.

Some of the details of the plot laid out in the indictment were obtained in interrogations of al Qaeda leaders, according to a law enforcement source. Top operatives in captivity, named in the indictment as unindicted co-conspirators, are Rahim al-Nashiri, who was al Qaeda's operations chief in the Persian Gulf, and Tawfiq bin Attash, who met with two of the September 11, 2001, hijackers in Malaysia within days of the failed attack on The Sullivans.

Badawi was arrested in Yemen shortly after the Cole bombing. He, Quso and eight others suspected of ties to al Qaeda escaped from a tightly guarded intelligence prison by digging a hole through a bathroom wall, authorities said.

Ashcroft said the Justice Department decided to seek an indictment because the men are no longer in Yemeni custody and could be quickly extradited to the United States if captured.

Prosecutors said that in the spring or summer of 2000, Attash and Nashiri met with bin Laden in Kandahar, Afghanistan. They tested the explosives that had sunk the first boat, then found a way to strengthen the boat's hull.

Badawi, who the indictment says was recruited by members of bin Laden's inner circle, allegedly found safe houses in Aden for the terrorists. In Saudi Arabia, he purchased the boat used in the Cole attack and obtained the vehicle and trailer used to haul it to Aden harbor, according to the government. Badawi was also charged in the failed attack on The Sullivans.

Quso helped plan the Cole attack and prepared to film it from a hillside apartment overlooking Aden harbor, according to the indictment, then was dispatched by Badawi to dispose of the vehicle and boat trailer.

Bin Laden praised the Cole bombing at a training camp in Afghanistan the following spring, appearing in a video re-creating the attack that was made by another top al Qaeda operative, Saif al Adel, the government charged. Adel, who is head of al Qaeda's military committee, is still at large.

Bin Laden was named as an unindicted co-conspirator, as were Nashiri, Attash, Adel and Mushin Musa Matwalli, also known as "Mujaher."

Jamal Badawi, above, along with Fahd Quso, has been indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on 50 counts.