DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – Prison guards said Tuesday that they were totally overwhelmed when about 150 heavily armed Taliban fighters staged a late-night attack on their jail in northwest Pakistan, freeing more than 250 prisoners including in excess of three dozen suspected militants.
It was the second such attack by the Taliban on a prison in the northwest within the past 18 months. But even so, the security forces were totally unprepared for the raid, despite senior prison officials having received intelligence indicating an attack was likely. More than a dozen people were killed in the assault.
The attack in the town of Dera Ismail Khan raises serious questions about state institutions’ capacity to battle a domestic Taliban insurgency that has raged for years and killed tens of thousands of security personnel and civilians.
Hidayat Ullah, a policeman who was guarding the prison when the attack started about 11:30 Monday night, said he and several colleagues jumped into an armored vehicle inside the prison grounds and drove to the main gate to defend the compound. They directed fire at the gate after the militants blew it up, but a mortar or rocket-propelled grenade hit their vehicle, killing two policemen and wounding Ullah and two others.
After that, I don’t know what happened, Ullah said at a hospital.
Another prison official, Zeeshan Khan, said he was in the jail’s main building when the attack started with two loud explosions. He rushed to the top of the building and saw a large group of militants on motorcycles, cars and a minibus rushing into the prison compound through the knocked-down walls. The militants also used dozens of smaller bombs to destroy other parts of the prison.
The jail guards on the top posts started firing to prevent them from getting closer, but to no avail, and the guards were the first victims of their massive firing, Khan said. The jail security officials called for immediate reinforcement as they were helpless before the massive attack.
The militants, who were shouting God is great and Long live the Taliban, killed six policemen, six Shiite Muslim prisoners and two civilians, said Dera Ismail Khan’s commissioner, Mushtaq Jadoon. Many hard-line Pakistani militants consider the country’s Shiite minority to be heretics. The militants were armed with guns, bombs and grenades, and some were disguised in police uniforms.
The militants used megaphones to call out the names of specific prisoners for whom they were looking. They broke open the cells and freed 253 prisoners, including 25 dangerous terrorists, Jadoon said.