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300 prisoners on loose; committee formed to investigate
By Zahir Shah
BANNU – The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government removed four senior officials from their posts April 16, as a broad search was under way after a Taliban attack on a jail that freed 384 prisoners.
About 200 heavily armed Taliban militants riding in more than 50 vehicles stormed the Central Jail in Bannu at about 1.15am April 15, freeing the prisoners, including Adnan Rashid – a key suspect in an attempt to kill then-President Pervez Musharraf in 2003. Four women and 22 inmates who had been sentenced to death were among the escapees.
Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman for South Waziristan Agency Asimullah Mehsud called media outlets and claimed responsibility, saying, “We have taken our important men and would also be launching similar attacks in future.”
Firings announced; investigative committee formed
Bannu Commissioner Abdullah Khan Mehsud was removed by order of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, while KP Inspector General of Prisons Arshad Majeed Mohmand, Deputy Inspector General of Police for Bannu Range Muhammad Iftikhar Khan, and Deputy Superintendent of Jails Muhammad Zahid were removed from their posts by the KP government. All have been made officers on special duty (OSDs), KP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain told Central Asia Online April 16.
Officials formed a committee to investigate and ordered it to submit a report in 15 days, Iftikhar said. “This is something different from routine terrorism,” he said. “It was a planned activity and needs to be probed minutely. Its causes, reasons, security and intelligence lapses, all will be taken into account, but I would say it was a complete failure on many fronts ... .”
Interior Minister Rehman Malik told media in Islamabad April 15 that the jailbreak indicates a security lapse and strict action will be taken against those responsible.
Anatomy of the attack
Militants fired rockets and lobbed hand grenades at the jail, targeting the main gate and side walls, said KP Minister for Jails Mian Nisar Gul.
The jail housed 946 inmates, 22 of whom had been sentenced to death, Assistant Superintendent of Central Jail Jalat Khan told Central Asia Online.
Six of the 20 barracks were breached, and the prisoners from those wings either escaped or were used by militants as human shields, Nisar said.
The police were called, but it took them time to respond, leaving the jail staff to defend the prison.
“However, the number of attackers was so high that the meagre jail security people could not have stopped them,” Nisar said.
Twenty-two prison personnel were injured, four seriously, in the attack, he said.
“There was no way to stop them as our security guards had only four guns and it was impossible to counter the attack,” Zahid told Central Asia Online before his dismissal. “About 150 personnel were deployed in the jail, but all of them were not armed and all this happened so swiftly that the guards were unable to resist.”
As of late Monday, 66 of the 384 escapees were back in prison, after either surrendering or being re-captured, KP Home Secretary Azam Khan said.
Rashid’s release was likely aim
The main objective likely was to release Rashid, a former junior technician of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) convicted of plotting to murder Musharraf.
“The whole plan seemed to have been made to release the top militant,” said Akbar Khan Hoti, the KP police chief. An intelligence source said the militant attackers were asking for Rashid in Urdu and other languages, and a security official who inspected the jail said jihadi literature in English and Arabic was in Rashid’s cell.
Rashid, from the Chota Lahor area of Swabi District in KP, joined the PAF in 1997 and was arrested in 2004 in connection with a 2003 suicide attack on Musharraf. He was shifted from Kohat to Bannu Jail in October 2008.
Investigation to focus on security, response
Former Secretary Security Brig. (ret.) Mehmood Shah called the attack astonishing.
“Hundreds of people moving with heavy weapons and attacking in the heart of the city are something really serious and should be dealt with severely,” he said.
“It is also a black hole in the security and intelligence operation if intelligence on this attack had not been passed, or if a timely action had not been taken by the law enforcement agencies.”
Jail security rests with the prison authorities and police responded, Hoti said, but the response will be part of the investigation. Investigators will look into the possibility of insider involvement, Malik said.
“The committees shall be looking into all aspects from intelligence failure to why the guards and the force deployed in the jail didn’t react but we have to look into ... the entire operation; how and from where the attack came and was materialised,” Iftikhar said. “I think the point of the militants’ attack has been located, all links are pointing to the adjacent tribal areas so a co-ordinated action is needed both in the settled and the tribal belt at once to take them on.”