TIKRIT, Iraq Dozens of inmates, including convicted members of al Qaeda, fought their way out of a prison in Iraq using weapons smuggled in during family visits, the Interior Ministry said on Friday.
The prison, in the city of Tikrit, held just over 300 inmates and was attacked by gunmen dressed in police uniforms late on Thursday after a car bomb exploded outside the gate, security sources said. Inmates then took control of the jail.
Sixteen members of the security forces were killed in ensuing clashes, the ministry said.
Security forces managed to regain control of the jail early on Friday, but the Interior Ministry said 74 prisoners were still on the run, including leading members of al Qaeda who had been sentenced to death.
Violence in Iraq has eased since its height in 2006-2007 when sectarian slaughter killed thousands but Sunni Islamists and an al Qaeda affiliate still launch regular attacks, seeking to destabilize the country and undermine its Shi'ite-led government.
"The Interior Ministry ... confirms that there was clear complicity in the operation by security elements in Tasfirat jail and that planning and coordination preceded it," the ministry said in a statement on its website.
The prison compound had gone uninspected for long periods, allowing inmates to hoard arms, according to the ministry.
A curfew was imposed and helicopters hovered over the city, the home town of executed former President Saddam Hussein.
The ministry said four escapees had been killed and 23 recaptured overnight, but a member of parliament's security and defense committee told Reuters it would be tough to track down the rest as they had destroyed prison records before fleeing.
"All documents, files, pictures and identifications of those prisoners were burned. I think the security forces will find it very difficult to identify those who escaped," said Hakim Al-Zamili.
Prison breaks are not uncommon. Last September, 35 prisoners facing terrorism charges escaped via a sewage pipe from a temporary jail in the city of Mosul, an al Qaeda stronghold.
(Reporting by Ghazwan Hassan and Raheem Salman; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Andrew Osborn)