Sunday, February 26, 2006

Militants seize parts of Afghan jail

Militants seize parts of Afghan jail
By Yousuf Azimy

PUL-I-CHARKHI, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Taliban and al Qaeda inmates armed with makeshift weapons took control of parts of Kabul's main jail and at least 30 prisoners were wounded in efforts to quell the riot, officials said on Sunday.

Bursts of gunfire were heard from the high security Pul-i-Charkhi prison after hundreds of police and troops surrounded the prison on the Afghan capital's eastern outskirts.

A police officer at the scene said seven prisoners were killed but his account could not be independently confirmed.

The unrest erupted late on Saturday and continued throughout Sunday after prisoners led by Taliban and al Qaeda militants took two female guards captive in a row over attempts to implement a new rule requiring inmates to wear uniform, government officials said.

"As far as we know, some 1,500 prisoners are involved in this incident," a security official said on condition of anonymity.

"It went out of control and a clash broke out between the prisoners, including many Taliban, and the police, in which 30 people have been wounded," he said.

Deputy Justice Minister Mohammad Qasim Hashimzai, tasked with quelling the riot, said the jail housed more than 2,000 prisoners, about 350 of whom were Taliban or al Qaeda militants.

"Taliban and al Qaeda members from different countries are behind this unrest," he told Reuters.

Hundreds of police and troops backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers took position outside the jail. NATO peacekeepers and soldiers from the U.S. military force in Afghanistan were also at the scene.

Flames were seen from windows of two wings of the jail after inmates -- who police said had makeshift weapons including clubs made from broken beds -- set fire to bedding and chanted "Long live the prisoners" and "Allahu Akbar", or "God is Greatest".


Officials said there were attempts to negotiate with inmates, but sporadic gunshots followed.

General Ezmarai Khan, commander of the Afghan army's Quick Reaction Force, said the prisoners had demanded to speak to Red Cross and human rights workers but then refused to talk to them.

"They aren't united," he said. "Their demands keep changing."

Khan said there was no danger of prisoners escaping as the jail was surrounded by three rings of police and troops. "They can't do anything," he said of the prisoners.

Hashimzai said he could not confirm a report from a police officer at the scene, who did not want to be identified, that seven prisoners, including two Taliban, had been killed.

Earlier Hashimzai said four prisoners were wounded trying to escape and that he had heard that 20 more prisoners were inside hurt, but inmates would not hand them over for treatment.

"It seems the situation will continue during the night. We are going to deploy our forces in various parts of the prison and get ready to prevent any kind of violence during the night."

General Mahboub Amiri, chief of Kabul's Rapid Reaction Police Force, said Taliban inmates triggered the riot in an escape bid.

Hashimzai said it erupted after authorities began issuing blue prison uniforms intended to prevent a repeat of an escape from the jail last month by seven Taliban inmates who mingled with visitors. Officials suspect guards assisted the escape.

Pul-i-Charkhi is a large Soviet-style prison complex built in the 1970s. Thousands of Afghans who opposed communist rule were killed and tortured there in the 1980s. Now it houses common criminals and al Qaeda or Taliban-linked militants.

In December 2004, four policemen and four inmates died in a day-long siege at the jail when militants attempted a breakout.

(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin)