BAGHDAD (AP) – Five Al Qaeda-linked prisoners awaiting execution and 11 other inmates broke out of a prison in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, prompting a massive manhunt Thursday, officials said.
A complete curfew was imposed on the city of 250,000 after the prisoners escaped at around 11:15 p.m. Wednesday.
Checkpoints have been set up throughout the city and at roads leading out, a Tikrit police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operation with media.
The prisoners were being held on charges including terrorism, kidnapping and murder, and the majority have links to Al Qaeda in Iraq, the officer said.
Some are still awaiting sentencing, but five were slated for execution on terrorism convictions, the officer said.
One of the five was recaptured early Thursday in the Tikrit area, a 19-year-old from a town near the city. Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf would not comment on the inmates’ possible links to Al Qaeda, saying only that six of the escaped convicts are considered “dangerous.”
The police officer said authorities found a pipe wrench in a bathroom in the prison yard, which the inmates apparently used to open a ventilation window.
Khalaf would give no details on the prisoners or how they escaped, but said authorities were distributing wanted posters with photos of the fugitives in the city, which is about 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad.
Extra surveillance has also been ordered at Iraq’s borders and throughout the northwest of the country, Khalaf said.
Provincial authorities fired Col. Mohammed Saleh Jubara, the head of the anti-terrorism department for Salahuddin province where Tikrit is located, the police officer said.
The anti-terrorism department is responsible for the security of prisoners being held on terrorism related charges.
Provincial spokeswoman Fatin Abdul-Qadir said in a statement that a committee had been formed to investigate how the 16 prisoners escaped and whether they had any help getting the wrench into the prison. She would not comment on Jubara’s firing, but state television said it was related to the prison break.
The facility from which the inmates escaped was a
makeshift prison, built on the compound of one of Saddam’s
former palaces. Inmates were housed in a former school of
Islamic studies, surrounded by tall concrete blast walls
and guard towers.
Iraq’s overcrowded prison and judicial systems are struggling to handle the thousands of detainees being handed over to Iraqi authorities this year by the U.S. military under the requirements of a security pact between the two countries.
International human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have said conditions inside Iraqi prisons are appalling.
Earlier this month, inmates at Abu Ghraib prison rioted for two days to demand better conditions and the replacement of prison staff they accuse of mistreatment. The prison, where abuses by U.S. troops helped fuel anti-American sentiment in Iraq, has been handed back to Iraqi control and reopened in February.