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BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - A dozen insurgents linked to al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate have escaped from a prison in the southern oil hub of Basra, the head of the security committee at Basra's provincial council said on Friday.
Ali Ghanim al-Maliki said the 12 men, arrested over the course of last year, had escaped with help from within the fortified compound. He said all guards securing the compound had been arrested as part of an investigation into the incident.
"All of the men are linked to the Islamic State of Iraq, that is linked to al Qaeda. Some of them were arrested eight months ago, and three of them were arrested a month, or less than a month ago," Maliki told Reuters.
"All the guards securing the compound have been detained for investigation. Of course, there was collusion from within the compound, but we do not know who is involved at this moment," he said.
One security official who declined to be named said the prisoners escaped after one of the officers in charge of security at the fortified compound smuggled them out under the pretext that there was an order to transfer them to another prison.
Iraq ranks among the world's most corrupt nations and ordinary Iraqis blame widespread corruption for many of their woes.
The prison, in a compound that was one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, also houses the governor and council of ministers' offices, police headquarters and an intelligence cell. It is a fortified zone similar to Baghdad's Green Zone in which government offices and embassies are based.
"Those insurgents were being investigated by the intelligence cell that is located in the presidential palace, and that is why they were detained there," Maliki said.
Photographs of the prisoners were distributed around security checkpoints in Basra, which is 420 km (260 miles) southeast of Baghdad. Car searches and identity checks at checkpoints had also been intensified, one police source said.
Reporting by Aref Mohammed; Writing by Khalid al-Ansary; Editing by Serena Chaudhry and Jason Neely