PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) – Dozens of heavily armed Taliban fighters freed nearly 250 prisoners, including hardcore militants, during a sophisticated overnight attack on a Pakistani jail that killed 13 people, officials said Tuesday.
Armed with guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and bombs, the Taliban bombarded the prison in the town of Dera Ismail Khan before escaping with scores of inmates after a three-hour shootout.
The attack by well-trained gunmen, disguised in police uniforms, will heighten concerns about the ability of the Taliban to operate with impunity in parts of the nuclear-armed state.
It took place just hours before the country began electing a new head of state to replace outgoing President Asif Ali Zardari, who is ending a five-year term.
Zardari’s party lost general elections in May and has boycotted Tuesday’s presidential vote, leading to the certain victory of Mamnoon Hussain, a close ally of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
At least 248 prisoners escaped, of whom six were later re-arrested, senior government official Mushtaq Jadoon told ARY television, describing about 30 of them as “hardcore militants.”
Malik Qasim, prisons adviser to the chief minister of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, confirmed that 248 had escaped.
He said the militants had also taken away six women, including one female constable and five female inmates.
The Central Prison in Dera Ismail Khan can hold up to 5,000 inmates and around 300 were being held in connection with attacks on security forces and sectarian killings.
But it was not clear how many were present during the assault, which began late Monday and ended early Tuesday.
The city in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is close to Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal belt bordering Afghanistan where Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents are most active.
The prison break came after more than 1,000 inmates, mostly common criminals, escaped from a Libyan jail in the city of Benghazi during a riot on Saturday.
And last week, militants attacked two prisons in Iraq, freeing at least 500 inmates in bomb, mortar and gun assaults that killed more than 40 people north and west of the capital Baghdad.
The chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pervez Khattak, a member of cricket star Imran Khan’s party that advocates peace talks with the Taliban, branded the latest attack a failure of intelligence agencies.
The Pakistani Taliban, which has led a domestic insurgency since 2007 killing thousands of people, claimed responsibility.
“Some 150 Taliban, including 60 suicide bombers, attacked the Central Prison and managed to free about 300 prisoners,” Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told AFP by telephone.
A security official in the city told AFP the militants arrived in more than a dozen vehicles and that two Taliban commanders were among those who escaped.
“Militants also torched jail records and an office,” he said on condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to talk to the media.
Jadoon said the fighters planted dozens of explosive devices in the jail which were later defused by bomb disposal experts.
A curfew was imposed in the city after the attack.
“We appeal on people to stay at home. It is to avoid any damage if army, police and paramilitary take any action,” Jadoon said.
The siege began with rocket fire, killing two policemen and providing cover for 50-60 militants to storm inside, Jadoon said.
“First they destroyed a police armoured vehicle parked at the front gate,” he said.
“Police killed one militant who was trying to flee and who opened fire on police near the jail,” he said.
Provincial prisons chief Khalid Abbas said the gunfight raged for three hours. Militants wearing police uniforms stormed the prison after bombing its outer wall and throwing hand grenades at guards.
The prison was plunged into darkness by an electricity outage and after the battle, security forces searched the prison to count inmates by flashlight to determine how many had escaped, he said.
“At least 13 people have been killed and eight injured,” Abbas told AFP.
Among the dead were six police officers, one civilian, two attackers and four prisoners, he said.
Residents in Dera Ismail Khan reported hearing loud blasts and gunfire, and said the electricity supply to several parts of the city had also been suspended.
It was not the first time either the Afghan Taliban or their Pakistani offshoot have claimed prison breaks. In April 2012, nearly 400 prisoners escaped from a jail outside Pakistan’s northwestern town of Bannu during a similar insurgent raid.
A year later, almost 500 — mostly Taliban — inmates made it out of a prison in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province through a 250-metre (820-foot) tunnel lined with lights and an air pipe.