By Zia Ur Rehman
April 20-26, 2012
Around 200 Taliban militants armed with guns, grenades and rockets attacked a jail in Bannu and released 384 prisoners, including Adnan Rashid, who was convicted of participating in an attack on former president Pervez Musharaf.
The pre-dawn attack on April 15 is an indication of the strength of the Taliban in the face of claims that their network has been shattered, security analysts say, and the success of the brazen operation will boost their morale and strengthen their resolve.
“At 1:30am, between 150 and 200 militants fired rockets on the main gate of the Central Jail and released a total of 384 inmates,” said Muhammad Zahid Khan, who was deputy superintendent of Bannu Jail at the time of the attack. Around 20 of the freed convicts were ‘very dangerous’ and were being kept in the death cell, he said. About 91 of the escaped prisoners returned voluntarily. The returned prisoners were all serving time for petty crimes and apparently not related to the Taliban.
The Bannu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is seen as a gateway to North Waziristan, a tribal region along the Afghan border that has long been a stronghold of Taliban insurgents and several other militant groups. Bannu, which also shares border with Lakki Marwat and Karak districts, has seen several attacks in recent years, usually bombings.
The 500-acre prison is situated about 10 kilometers from the Bannu city and its 22 barracks keep convicts from Bannu, the neighbouring districts, and the tribal areas. The jail was considered very safe and a large number of Taliban militants from the nearby Kohat and Lakki Marwat prisons had recently been moved to Bannu, said an official in the provincial Home and Tribal Affairs Department.
But witnesses said the prison guards, the local police and other security forces did not offer a significant resistance during the two-hour raid. The four wounded jail officials were not hit by bullets and were sent home from the hospital after first-aid treatment.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Prisons Minister Mian Nisar Gul said the guards ran out of ammunition. They called the police immediately after the attack, he said, but help arrived after the attackers had fled. There are two police stations – Township and Domail – situated within 4 kilometers of the site.
Only 30 police guards were on duty at the time of the attack while a whopping 63 were absent, said another official in Bannu. Of those 30 who were present, only 10 were armed, he added.
Of the 20 Frontier Constabulary (FC) officials who were supposed to be on duty, 14 were absent. Only six FC personnel were armed and on duty.
The attackers came mostly from North Waziristan and returned after accomplishing their mission. Local journalists and witnesses said that the inmates were taken to North Waziristan in dozens of vehicles on a main road on which there were six security checkposts.
Asimullah Mehsud, a spokesman for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) South Waziristan chapter, called media outlets and claimed responsibility. “We took away our important men,” he said, “and in a couple of days when all of them have reached their destinations, we will issue details.” He vowed to carry out similar attacks in future.
Government officials and security experts believe the key objective of the jailbreak was to release Rashid, a former junior technician in Pakistan Air Force (PAF) convicted of plotting to murder Musharaf. Jail officials and the prisoners who returned voluntarily said the militants fired rockets and hand grenades before entering the prison, and were asking for Rashid in Urdu, Pashto and Punjabi languages.
Rashid, a resident of Chota Lahor area of Swabi district, joined PAF in 1997 and was arrested in connection with the first life attempt on Musharaf that took place near Jhanda Chichi Bridge in Rawalpindi on December 14, 2003. Rashid worked with Amjad Farooqi, a militant leader who engineered the two assassination attempts on Musharaf in December 2003. Six PAF men including Rashid were convicted by a field general court martial on October 3 2005, at PAF Base Chaklala.
Journalists in Peshawar said Rashid used to send text messages to them using his mobile phone in the prison.
Nooruddin, another important Taliban commander, is also among the escapees.
The National Crisis Management Cell had told the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa home secretary and police chief in a report on January 5 that the Tariq Geedar militant outfit was planning to attack the Bannu prison to free Rashid. The report said it was also planning to attack the PAF base in Kohat, the Kohat garrison, and Laachi police station.
But the provincial government said the jailbreak was “total failure of intelligence agencies”. Mian Ifthikar Hussain, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa information minister, said the government had removed the deputy superintendent of Bannu jail, the city commissioner and two other senior police officers, and formed a five-member committee to investigate the raid.
Hussain said the jailbreak coincided with multiple attacks by the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan. “The committee will try to find out whether the attacks are linked,” he said.
A militant commander who helped plan the Bannu jailbreak told Reuters that his group had inside information. “We had complete maps and plans of the jail and the surrounding area,” he said, “and we spent Rs20 million on the mission.” The account could not be verified independently, but Interior Minister did not rule out inside involvement. “It is possible that the attackers had help from the inside,” he told reporters. An inquiry would be held, he said, to find out who sent Rashid to Bannu jail.”
“Although the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan have carried out several jailbreaks, such attacks are rare in Pakistan,” said Arshad Waheed, a political scientist at Gomal University in DI Khan.
About 870 inmates, including 390 Taliban, fled the Kandahar Prison in Afghanistan in June 2008 while in April 2011, over 400 inmates escaped through a tunnel from the same jail that had been rebuilt and made secure.
While the ability of Pakistani militants to attack in the cities has been diminished and their operational capacity significantly degraded in the past year, this jailbreak would be a major boost for their morale, Waheed said.
Those who fled include key Taliban men, and their presence will strengthen the militant outfits, analysts say.
The writer is a journalist and a researcher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org