Pakistani security officials gather at the damaged main entrance of a prison following an attack by armed militants in Bannu on April 15, 2012. — AFP PHOTO / KARIM ULLAH
DERA ISMAIL KHAN: Nearly 400 prisoners escaped from a jail in northwest Pakistan early on Sunday after it was attacked by militants armed with guns and rocket propelled grenades, a senior police official said.
The raid by more than 100 fighters was a dramatic display of the strength of the insurgency gripping the nuclear-armed country.
The attackers, armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, stormed the prison before dawn in the city of Bannu close to the Afghan border, said police officer Shafique Khan. They used explosives and hand grenades to knock down the main gates and two walls, said Bannu prison superintendent Zahud Khan.
”They were carrying modern and heavy weapons,” said Zahud Khan. ”They fired rockets.”
Once inside the building, the attackers headed straight to the area of the prison where death-row prisoners were being kept, he said. They fought with guards for around two hours, setting part of the prison on fire before freeing the 380 inmates, including at least 20 ”very dangerous Taliban militants,” said Shafique.
Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which has close links 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,” said Taliban spokesman Asimullah Mehsud.
The claim could not be immediately verified.
If the Taliban freed the prisoners, it could deal a psychological blow to Pakistani security forces, who say they have made gains against militants through a series of attacks on their strongholds.
The escaped prisoners may now rejoin the fight, giving momentum and a propaganda boost to a movement that has killed thousands of Pakistani officials and ordinary citizens since 2007.
“Dozens of militants attacked Bannu’s central jail in the early hours of the morning, and over 300 prisoners have escaped,” senior police official Mir Sahib Jan told Reuters.
“There was intense gunfire, and rocket-propelled grenades were also used.”
Paramilitary troops and security forces surrounded Bannu Central Jail. Of a total 944 prisoners in the jail, 384 escaped, said another police official.
One of the prisoners who escaped from jail was on death row for involvement in an assassination attempt on former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, a police official said.
“There was an inmate named Adnan Rasheed, who was a dangerous prisoner. He was a mastermind in (one of the attacks) on Musharraf. These people came for him and took another 383 people too,” said the official.
Militants apparently targeted six jail blocks in the attack, he said.
The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, is fighting to topple the US-backed Islamabad government.
Major suicide bombings have eased in recent months, suggesting either security crackdowns have weakened the group, or it has changed tactics.