ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani authorities moved some of their most notorious militant inmates after an intelligence warning of an imminent jailbreak but a Taliban raid this week has raised fears about the security of all Pakistani prisons.
Pakistan was taken off guard on Monday when a squad of highly trained Taliban fighters overran a century-old prison in Dera Ismail Khan, a town on the edge of a lawless ethnic Pashtun tribal area, setting free a band of senior militants together with more than 200 other inmates.
Those included about 30 mid-ranking Taliban fighters, but no internationally big names, security and Taliban sources said - a reflection of the fact that Pakistan’s most serious Taliban fighters are held elsewhere.
The raid, complete with suicide bombs, grenade explosions and hours of gunfire, took place almost one year after another big jailbreak in another northwestern city, Bannu, and was carried out with similar, military-style precision.
Like a year ago, the authorities scrambled on Wednesday to boost security at jails. And once again, there was talk of an insider job.
“It’s a massive security breach,” said an interior ministry official who asked not to be identified.
“Taking the cue from that, other major prisons around the country are being secured.”
He said additional police and paramilitary reinforcements were being deployed at all major prisons around the country, particularly those in the city of Karachi and in Punjab province where some of Pakistan’s most hardcore Taliban are held.
Intelligence about a new Bannu-style attack first appeared on the desks of senior officials a few months ago, sources said.
As a result, several high profile inmates including London-educated Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh convicted of the 2002 killing of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl, have been relocated from the Karachi Central Prison to other, more secure locations, sources said.
The success of Monday’s jailbreak has only emboldened the Taliban. As additional units rushed to reinforce prison gates around the country, officials warned there could more attacks.
“We are extremely concerned,” said a government official in Islamabad who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They (Taliban) are able to pay, to buy people’s loyalties.”
Hours after the raid, the inspector general of the provincial prison system and a raft of other officials were suspended, officials in the regional capital of Peshawar said.
Officials in Islamabad were quick to accuse provincial authorities of incompetence, saying intelligence agencies had sent them several tip-offs about an impending attack in the area.
National newspapers quoted excerpts from a classified Interior Ministry letter sent on the eve of the attack as saying that militants were “planning to carry out (a) Bannu jailbreak-like attack on Dera Ismail Khan Central Prison”.
The attack on the Dera Ismail Khan jail, carried out by dozens of Taliban fighters disguised as police, was the latest incident in a surge of violence in Pakistan since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to power more than a month ago.
It reflects the growing capabilities of the Pakistani branch of the Taliban, an offshoot of the insurgents of the same name in neighboring Afghanistan, to strike at the heart of Pakistan’s otherwise closely guarded prison system.
Officials suggested there was a degree of collusion with the Taliban within the system, including informants as well as sympathetic wardens who allowed prisoners to plot their escape with militants using their mobile telephones.
Dozens of freed inmates were quickly whisked away to North Waziristan, raising questions as to how a motorcade of vehicles brimming with guns and fighters managed to escape through what is supposed to be one of Pakistan’s most heavily policed areas.
Days after the jailbreak, officials were keen to show they were taking security seriously.
“We have reinforced security by deploying extra contingents of local police,” said senior police officer Imran Shaukat at the massive Karachi Central Prison housing more than 20,000 inmates. “(We) have submitted to the jail authorities a list of weak points in the prison’s security.”
Additional reporting by Saud Mehsud; in Dera Ismail Khan, Syed Raza Hassan in Islamabad, and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Editing by Robert Birsel