Gunmen attacked two Iraqi jails in a bid to free prisoners, killing at least 41 people in fierce clashes that raged all night, officials said yesterday.
The coordinated attacks on the prisons of Taji, north of Baghdad, and Abu Ghraib, west of the capital, were launched on Sunday night and lasted for about 10 hours, they said.
A police colonel said seven inmates escaped from Abu Ghraib during the clashes, although Islamists claimed on the Internet that thousands of prisoners were freed.
Officials said at least 20 members of the security forces were killed in the attacks on Taji prison and on Abu Ghraib, a facility notorious for abuses committed by US forces against Iraqi detainees in 2004.
About 40 other security force members were wounded.
Justice ministry spokesman said that 21 inmates were killed and 25 wounded during rioting at the prisons, without specifying whether they were bystanders or taking part in the fighting.
It was not immediately clear how many of the militants who attacked the prison were killed, wounded or captured.
The attacks were launched at about 9:30pm on Sunday when the gunmen fired mortar shells at the prisons. Explosives on board cars were then detonated near the entrances to the jails, while three suicide bombers attacked Taji prison, the police colonel said.
Fighting continued throughout the night as the military deployed helicopters and sent in reinforcements around the two facilities. The situation was eventually brought under control by dawn, he said.
“The security forces in the Baghdad Operations Command, with the assistance of military aircraft, managed to foil an armed attack launched by unknown gunmen against the ... two prisons of Taji and Abu Ghraib,” the Iraqi Ministry of Interior said in a statement late on Sunday night.
“The security forces forced the attackers to flee, and these forces are still pursuing the terrorist forces and exerting full control over the two regions,” it said.
However, commenters on microblogging Web site Twitter, including some accounts apparently operated by jihadists, claimed thousands of prisoners had escaped.
The attacks on the prisons came a year after al-Qaeda’s Iraqi front group announced it would target the Iraqi justice system.
“The first priority in this is releasing Muslim prisoners everywhere, and chasing and eliminating judges and investigators and their guards,” said an audio message attributed to the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in July last year.
Meanwhile, officials say a suicide attack against an army patrol in northern Iraq has killed 12 people.
A police officer said the suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car early yesterday morning into a passing army patrol in Mosul, killing nine soldiers and three civilians.
Fourteen others, including four civilians, were wounded, he said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to release information.
Additional reporting by AP