Dozens of Islamist militants stormed a prison in Pakistan in the dead of night early yesterday and freed nearly 400 inmates, including one on death row for trying to assassinate former Pakistani 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 AK-47 assault rifles.
A police official said most of the escapees 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 by mobile phone from the jail in the town of Bannu.
“Then there was gunfire. We didn’t know what was happening,” he said.
While the Taliban in Afghanistan have staged several jail breaks, such attacks are rare in Pakistan.
“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.
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 were shot off doors. Walls were pockmarked with bullet holes.
An assault of this scale will likely generate fresh questions over Pakistan’s progress in fighting militancy since joining the US-led campaign.
The prison break could deal a psychological blow to security forces following repeated government assertions that security crackdowns have weakened militant groups.
Pakistan is seen as critical to US efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, yet Pakistan faces its own daunting security problems.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, is seen as the biggest threat, staging suicide bombings and attacks on military compounds.
In the unruly ethnic Pashtun tribal areas near the Afghan border, the Taliban control large pockets where they use floggings and beheadings to impose their version of Islamic law.
The Pakistani Taliban are closely linked with the Afghan Taliban. They move back and forth across the unmarked border, exchange intelligence and provide shelter for each other.
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 assault, ordered by Musharraf, was widely seen as the event that sparked a full-blown Islamist militant campaign to topple the government.
A police official identified one of the inmates who escaped as a “dangerous prisoner” named Adnan Rasheed, who took part in one of the attempts to kill Musharraf.
“He was a mastermind in [one of the attacks] on Musharraf. These people came for him and took another 383 people too,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Nazeef described how tall, bearded men with AK-47 rifles yelled “God is Greatest,” fired their weapons at the prison’s ceilings, and asked inmates about Rasheed’s whereabouts.
“One of them had a large hammer and tried to break the lock of our cell. It didn’t work so they shot the lock off with their guns. They had wireless sets and were talking to each other. One of them then said that they had found Adnan Rasheed,” he said.