AMMAN, Jordan (AP) – Jordan’s top prison official and at least six other police officers were being held hostage Wednesday by prisoners rioting over the fate of two convicted al-Qaeda killers.
Two of the hostages were released, Maj. Bashir Da’aja, spokesman for the Public Security Department announced on Jordan Television. But he did not identify the men or provide further details.
Jordan’s Interior Minister Eid al-Fayez said using force to release the captives would only be a last resort. “We will not resort to using force, unless necessity requires it,” al-Fayez told the official Petra news agency. He added that officials were talking to the hostage takers.
Al-Fayez said one of their demands was for new trials in civil courts as some had been convicted and sentenced by military tribunals.
He had initially reported that six to eight police officers had been taken hostage.
Da’aja said the riots broke out at Juweideh prison when prisoners demanded that at least two inmates, including the al-Qaeda-linked killer of an American diplomat, be transferred from the Swaqa prison to theirs, Da’aja said earlier at a news conference. But an Islamic activist in Jordan said inmates began rioting after they heard reports that the two convicted al-Qaeda members were being taken away for execution. But al-Da’aja denied the report saying that “no execution order was ever issued.”
The activist said hundreds of special security and army units were at the prison. The activist, who asked not to be named so as not to endanger himself with police, said he got his information from families of inmates who were in the prison at the time the rioting broke out. The activist himself once was in the same prison.
Police had erected a 3-kilometer (2-mile) exclusion zone around the prison.
The Deputy Public Security Director, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Salam al-Ja’afreh, told the state-run Jordan Television that the director of the Kingdom’s penitentiaries, Col. Saad al-Ajrami, was among the hostages. “We will never surrender to these demands,” Da’aja told a news conference. “We are following prison law and we have plans to negotiate with those rioting prisoners until we secure the release our colleagues,” he said. He added that a police negotiating team went in to meet with the rioting prisoners unarmed. Da’aja denied media reports that shooting broke out. He said the country’s other prisons, including the prisons the two death row inmates, were under control and no rioting had ever broken out there.
There were no other details provided, but the country’s official news agency, Petra, said an official denied other media reports that two prisoners had been killed.
The incident was the second this month in the region involving al Qaida prisoners. In Yemen, 23 convicted al-Qaeda convicts tunneled out of a high-security jail in early February, including a man convicted of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole destroyer.
Yemen’s president has said at least three have turned themselves in.
Juweideh prison is one of five disciplinary jails where 180 Muslim militants including a number of al-Qaeda members are incarcerated.
The two main inmates the rioters want transferred Jordanian Azmi al-Jayousi and Libyan Salem bin Suweid, Da’aja said.
Al-Jayousi was sentenced to death on Feb. 15 for a 2004 plot to carry out chemical attacks against sites in Jordan, including the U.S. Embassy. Jordanian-born terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was also sentenced to death in absentia for the plot.
The mastermind behind the plot, Al-Jayousi was convicted for conspiring to attack various sites in Jordan by setting off a cloud of toxic chemicals that would have killed thousands of people.
The plot included vehicles driven by suicide bombers and loaded with explosives and chemicals. Its targets included the General Intelligence Department in Amman, the U.S. Embassy and the prime minister’s office, Suweid was sentenced to death, along with al-Zarqawi, for being the triggerman in the 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley in Amman.