TIKRIT: Iraqi security forces on Friday hunted for dozens of al Qaeda-linked inmates who escaped during an attack on a prison in the city of Tikrit that left at least 13 policemen dead, officials said.
The violence at the prison comes after al Qaeda’s Iraqi front group announced a campaign to regain territory and said it aimed to help its jailed members escape.
“Security forces were able to detain 33 of the escaped inmates, and there are still about 75 others” at large, Mohammed Hassan Attiya, the head of the Salaheddin provincial council security committee, told AFP, adding that “operations to pursue them are continuing.”
“All of these inmates are Iraqi and members of the al Qaeda organisation,” he said, and most have been sentenced to death. Attiya said police were responsible for the incident, blaming “their weakness and their corruption.”
Salaheddin deputy governor Ahmed Abdul Jabbar told AFP that the Tikrit prison had been retaken from militants who seized it on Thursday night, but that 83 prisoners escaped.
A hospital official in Tikrit, the ancestral home of now-executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, said 13 police were killed and 34 wounded in the violence.
A source in the Salaheddin police command said, meanwhile, that 15 policemen and seven prisoners were killed, and put the number of escaped prisoners at about 100.
“We took control of the prison, and the gunmen handed over their weapons,” the official said.
A source in the Salaheddin governor’s office said that the provincial police chief was to be sacked over the incident.
Accounts differed on the specifics of the unrest, but it appears militants attacked from outside the prison, while inmates may have seized weapons from guards inside.
A police lieutenant colonel said Thursday that a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb at the gate of the prison, after which it was assaulted by gunmen.
And a traffic police lieutenant colonel who was near the scene of the attack said militants blew up part of the prison fence, and between 30 and 40 inmates were able to escape.
A police colonel said a riot broke out in the prison, while witnesses said inmates seized the guards’ weapons, and that more than 100 of them escaped and fought security forces in the surrounding area.
The tactics reportedly employed in the assault were reminiscent of those used in attacks in July and August.
Gunmen attempted to use bombs to breach a prison gate in Taji, north of Baghdad, on August 1, after using similar tactics on the anti-terrorism directorate in the capital the day before in an attack the interior ministry said was an attempt to free inmates.
al Qaeda front group the Islamic State of Iraq said in July that it was launching a “new military campaign aimed at recovering territory.” An earlier message posted on jihadist forums said the ISI would begin targeting judges and prosecutors, and try to help its prisoners break out of jails.
While insurgents opposed to the Baghdad government are regarded as weaker than in past years, they have shown they can strike at even the most highly secure sites in Iraq.
In addition to the prisons in Tikrit and Taji and the anti-terrorism directorate, targets in recent months have included a police station, a military base and an entrance to Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, where the government is headquartered.