Militants free 400 in mass jailbreak


BANNU, Pakistan – Dozens of Islamist militants stormed a prison in northwest Pakistan early yesterday and freed nearly 400 inmates, including one on death row for trying to assassinate former president Pervez Musharraf, police officials said.

Pakistan’s Taliban movement, which is close to al-Qaeda, said it was behind the brazen assault by militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and AK47 assault rifles.

A police official said most of those who escaped from the jail in the northwestern town of Bannu were militants.

“I don’t remember the exact time, but it must have been way past midnight. There were huge explosions. Plaster from the ceilings fell on us,” said prisoner Malik Nazeef, speaking from the jail in Bannu.

“Then there was gunfire. We didn’t know what was happening.”

While the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan has staged several jailbreaks, such attacks are rare in nuclear-armed Pakistan, a strategic US ally and one of the most unstable countries in the world.

“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 verified immediately.

The attackers fired rocket-propelled grenades at the black, metal gates of the prison, blowing them open. Debris was strewn on the ground inside, including locks that had been shot off doors. Walls were pockmarked with bullet holes.

An assault on this scale is likely to generate fresh questions over Pakistan’s progress in fighting militancy since it joined the “war on terror” the United States launched after the September 11th, 2001, attacks on US targets.

Such questions were also asked after US special forces found Osama bin Laden in May last year, in a Pakistani town where he had apparently been living for years, and killed him in a secret raid.

Pakistani officials describe bin Laden’s long presence in Abbottabad as a security lapse and reject suggestions that members of the military and intelligence service were complicit in hiding him there.

Yesterday’s prison break could be a psychological blow to security forces following repeated government assertions that security crackdowns have weakened militant groups. – (Reuters)