By Saud Mehsud
In an operation carried out with military-like precision, Taliban fighters disguised as police and armed with bombs broke 250 prisoners out of a Pakistan jail on Tuesday with the help of what appeared to be insider informants.
The attack in the city of Dera Ismail Khan showed the ability of the al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban to strike at the heart of Pakistan’s heavily guarded prison system and walk away with dozens of senior Taliban fighters and commanders.
The overnight assault on the Central Prison took place despite reports that regional officials had received intelligence days, if not weeks, ago suggesting such an attack was imminent.
Officials blamed a combination of negligence and lack of communication among Pakistan’s many security agencies, but some suggested there may have been a degree of insider help.
Just hours before the attack, army and police units had met at the jail to discuss security, one source said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
“It is very difficult to attack such a place without proper information or contacts,” said the police source, adding that some prisoners were suspected to have been in touch with the Taliban by mobile phones provided by sympathetic wardens.
“They are corrupt, lazy and unprofessional. And the militants may have supporters in the city.”
Another senior official in the provincial capital of Peshawar said only about 70 of the 200 prison guards who were meant to be on duty were present that night.
“Most policemen ran for their lives once the attack started, leaving their weapons behind,” the official told Reuters. “They could have easily killed some of the attackers but they even gave up their own guns, providing the attackers with more ammo.”
Pakistani Taliban said they had sent a squad of 100 fighters and seven suicide bombers on a mission to free some of their top leaders, and they said they released 250 prisoners – a number roughly matched by Pakistani authorities.
Fighting continued into the early hours of Tuesday, with explosions and machine gunfire rattling the city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, on the edge of Pakistan’s lawless ethnic Pashtun tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.
As the attack unfolded, gunmen blew up electricity lines to the prison and detonated bombs to breach the outer walls.
They fought their way inside using rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, and called the names of Taliban prisoners they wanted to release through loud speakers.
Once inside, attackers shot open most of the locks and used bombs to blast their way deep into the prison, shouting “All the locks are broken! Those who want to escape, now is your chance,” prison officials who were there at the time told Reuters.
Gunmen also took over a nearby house and hospital, holding the residents hostage as they fired on police from the rooftops and laid ambushes for reinforcements.
By Saud Mehsud