Taliban free hundreds in Pakistan jailbreak
By Syed Fazl-e-Haider
KARACHI - As many as 243 prisoners escaped after heavily armed Pakistan Taliban, some dressed in police uniform, stormed one of the main prisons in Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province late on Monday to free militants belonging to the outlawed group and other banned sectarian outfits.
Thirty militants were among the escapees, according to Mushtaq Jadoon, the commissioner of Dera Ismail Khan, the city where the prison is located. Fighting continued into early Tuesday, with explosions and machine gunfire rattling the city near the Afghanistan border.
More than 100 militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy arms rode in on motorbikes, destroying electricity
transformers and detonating bombs that breached the walls of the 100-year-old jailhouse. Around 50 explosions were heard as a gunfight started between the attackers and the police and security forces. The attackers used megaphones to call names of Taliban prisoners and broke into their cells using explosives devices, according to the commissioner. The Pakistan Army was called in to impose a curfew and launch a search operation after Dera Ismail Khan was plunged into darkness.
"The attackers have melted away in the population," one official acknowledged, according to a report in the New York Times.
The audacious attack on a prison considered to be one of the safest in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions raises concern that the country's prison system is ill-equipped to handle hardened militants jailed for their part in major attacks and suicide bombings. Facilities such as the Dera Ismail Khan prison are only built to house criminals. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander Adnan Rashid, who masterminded an assassination attempt on former president Pervez Musharraf, was among 400 prisoners freed militants with similar firepower an April 2012 attack on Bannu jail.
Police arrested six of the Dera Ismail Khan attackers, while five militants strapped with suicide bombs were killed by security forces. Three suicide bombers blew themselves during the attack on jail. Six policemen were also killed in the jailbreak, which began at about 11pm, Jadoon, the civil commissioner, said. The TTP has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Dera Ismail Khan's Central Jail houses as many as 5,000 prisoners including 250 hardline militants of sectarian outfits. It is believed that there were at least 45 high-profile militants in the jail, which is close to the town of Tank, adjacent to volatile South Waziristan, the stronghold of the Taliban and al Qaeda-linked militants along the Afghanistan border. A curfew has also been imposed in Tank.
The TTP claimed that it achieved its targets in the jailbreak. TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told Dawn that around 100 militants took part. Critics said the attack was due to a major security lapse on the part of jail authorities, who had received a threat from TTP. The jail authorities had received a threatening letter regarding the attack, according to Khalid Abbas, the Inspector General Jails in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The jailbreak raises international concerns over the growing strength and rapid reorganization of Taliban militants in the nuclear-armed country. The escaped militants in last year's Bannu jailbreak, including Adnan Rashid, rejoined the TTP, allowing it to enhance its operational capacity against the Pakistan armed forces. This was used to lethal effect this year in a campaign of violence leading up to the May 11 elections.
The TTP is probably the strongest militant group in the tribal belt along Afghanistan border. Its suicide attacks and bomb blasts across the country have killed thousands of civilians and hundreds of Pakistani officials over the past years. The outlawed group is believed to have forged an alliance with sectarian outfits like Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, which has been targeting minority Shi'ite Muslims across the country, with the Hazara community in southwestern Quetta bearing the brunt of its violence.
The surge in attacks from Pakistani Taliban poses a grave security challenge to the newly elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has been accused of being soft on Islamist extremists due to his opposition to full-fledged military operations against Taliban militants based in North Waziristan. He has supported meaningful dialogue with Pakistani Taliban and has strongly opposed US drone strikes.
Two newly elected lawmakers have been killed in suicide attacks since the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, led by Imran Khan, came to power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on May 30. A suicide attack at a funeral on June 18 killed at least 35 people, including the PTI member of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly Imran Mohmand. In the same month, another PTI lawmaker, Fareed Khan, was gunned down in the Hangu district of the province.
Khan's PTI has voiced support for holding peace talks with the Taliban, with the former cricketer taking a vocal stance against US drone strikes inside Pakistan. He staged sit-ins and led a march toward North Waziristan last year to protest against drone attacks that have killing civilians and violated the country's sovereignty. To Khan, Pakistan's participation in the American war on terror opened the floodgate to all Pakistan's troubles.
Awami National Party (ANP), the former ruling party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, has been in the crosshairs of Taliban militants. About 700 workers including key leaders have been killed in Taliban attacks. ANP also tried to hold peace talks with Pakistani Taliban when it came to power in the province in 2008. It was the failure of peace talks with the extremists that prompted the former government to launch a military operation against the Taliban insurgents in the northwestern town of Swat in 2009.
To the Taliban, the democratic system is un-Islamic and the voters and candidates are infidels for following a Western style of politics. The run up to the recent polls was marred by violence by Pakistani Taliban, who carried out attacks on the offices, rallies and candidates of political parties, turning the three-week election campaign by political parties into the bloodiest yet, with 130 people killed and at least 700 injured in terror attacks across the country.
Syed Fazl-e-Haider (www.syedfazlehaider.com ) is a development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of many books, including The Economic Development of Balochistan, published in May 2004. He can be emailed at [email protected]
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