Nearly 400 prisoners escape in northwest Pakistan jailbreak, including militants

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Some 384 prisoners including militants escaped early Sunday from a jail in northwestern Pakistan after an attack by insurgents armed with guns, grenades and rockets, officials said.

More than 150 militants stormed the central prison outside the restive northwestern town of Bannu bordering the lawless tribal regions where Taliban and other al-Qaeda linked militants are active.

The attack started at around 1:00 am (2000 GMT) and continued for two hours, with militants in cars and pick-up trucks shooting and lobbing grenades to force their way into the prison, a senior security official told AFP.

“Some 384 prisoners, including some hardcore militants, have escaped during the attack,” the official said.

“Preliminary information suggests that there were some 944 prisoners in the jail according to the tally late Saturday,” he said.

Pakistan’s Taliban movement, which has close ties to al-Qaeda, said its fighters mounted the assault, which triggered clashes. Several people were wounded.

“We have freed hundreds of our comrades in Bannu in this attack. Several of our people have reached their destinations, others are on their way,” a Taliban spokesman said.

The claim could not be immediately verified.

If the al Qaeda-linked Taliban freed the prisoners, it could deal a psychological blow to Pakistani security forces following government assertions that security crackdowns have weakened the group.

A large number of militants had recently been moved to the jail from neighboring Kohat and Lakki Marwat prisons, which are being converted into internment centers to rehabilitate former insurgents, the official said.

A former member of the air force sentenced to death for an attack on former president Pervez Musharraf was among the escaped militants, he said.

Police confirmed the attack but did not give any figures for the escapees, saying they were still investigating.

“There was an attack on the central jail and some prisoners escaped,” senior Bannu police official Iftikhar Khan told AFP.

“At least three police officials were wounded in the attack,” he said.

The attackers outnumbered the security forces at the prison and militants fled before reinforcements reached the jail.

Shafiq Ahmed, another police official said that security forces had imposed a cordon and a search operation was launched in the area.

“We have arrested four of the escaped prisoners,” Ahmed told AFP.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, is seen as the biggest threat, staging suicide bombings and shootings in a drive to impose its harsh version of Islam in the nuclear-armed country.

Major suicide bombings have eased in recent months, but it is unclear whether that is due to military gains or a shift in Taliban tactics.

A loose alliance of a dozen groups, the TTP began its battle against the state in 2007, after a bloody army raid on Islamabad’s Red Mosque, which was controlled by its allies.

The Pakistani Taliban are closely linked with the Afghan Taliban. They move back and forth the porous border, exchange intelligence, and provide shelter for each other in a region U.S. President Barack Obama has described as “the most dangerous place in the world”.