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September 25, 2009

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Iraq launches manhunt after 16 prisoners break out of jail

FIVE al-Qaida-linked prisoners awaiting execution and 11 other inmates broke out of a prison in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, prompting a massive manhunt yesterday, Iraqi officials said.

A complete curfew was imposed on the city of 250,000 after the prisoners escaped at around 11:15pm on 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.

At the request of local authorities, the United States military provided search dogs and aerial surveillance to help in the search, spokesman Major Derrick Cheng said.

The prisoners were being held on charges including terrorism, kidnapping and murder, and the majority have links to al-Qaida in Iraq, the police 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 yesterday in the Tikrit area - a 19-year-old from a town near the city.

Iraqi military spokesman Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf would not comment on the inmates' possible links to al-Qaida, saying only that six of the escaped convicts are considered "dangerous."

The police officer said authorities found a pipe wrench in a prison yard bathroom. The inmates apparently used it 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 130 kilometers north of Baghdad.

Extra surveillance has also been ordered at Iraq's borders and throughout the country's northwest, Khalaf said.

Provincial authorities fired Colonel 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 did 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 by the US military under the requirements of a security pact between the two countries.

International human rights groups have said conditions inside Iraqi prisons are appalling.


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