DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) — Only a handful of badly armed guards were posted at a Pakistani prison assaulted by Taliban militants earlier this week even though the government had intelligence indicating the facility was under threat, the prison chief said Wednesday in an admission likely to feed accusations of negligence over the deadly jailbreak.
The 35 guards, only 10 of whom had weapons, faced 150 attackers. Some were so scared during the assault late Monday night that they hid in sewer pipes, and others opened up one of the prison's main gates after the militants threatened them, said a senior government official.
These details are likely to spark further criticism of the government, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where the prison was located. The militants freed over 250 prisoners during the attack and killed more than a dozen people.
"Increasingly, the militant network appears an organized, emboldened and well-armed force running rings around a sluggish, even inept, security network," said an editorial in Pakistan's leading English language newspaper, Dawn.
The Taliban have smuggled over two dozen militants they broke out of the prison in the town of Dera Ismail Khan to one of the group's stronghold in the country's tribal region, two commanders said.
The deadly raid was codenamed "Freedom from Death," cost 11.5 million rupees ($115,000) and took six months to plan, said the commanders, speaking to The Associated Press by telephone on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by security forces.
It's unclear how so many heavily-armed militants were able to travel unhindered in vehicles and motorcycles to the walls of the prison, especially given the intelligence indicating a possible attack.
Only 10 of the 35 guards at the prison were armed, and some of their AK-47 assault rifles were not even in good shape, said the head of the prison, Ghulam Rabbani. He said the armed guards fought valiantly until they ran out of bullets. But the militants were armed with bombs and grenades, as well as guns.
"The 10 of my men did their best," said Rabbani. "They fought bravely."
But a senior official in the provincial government, Ali Amin Gandapur, criticized the guards, saying some of them were found hiding in sewer pipes and drains and others opened a main gate for the militants after they were threatened.
"This is such a shame," said Gandapur, minister of revenue. "I promise they all have to lose their uniforms."
Rabbani defended his men, saying unarmed guards had a right to hide since they were tasked with controlling the prisoners, not protecting the jail from attack. He held a meeting with city administrators the day of the attack to discuss the threat to the prison, but they were not prepared when the raid happened, he said.
The Taliban carried out a similar attack on a prison elsewhere in the northwest less than 18 months ago.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has suspended 27 police and prison officials in the wake of the attack, including 22 members of an anti-terrorist squad who were supposed act as a quick response force, but failed to do so, provincial officials said.
Authorities have managed to capture 41 of the 252 prisoners who escaped from the prison, said police official Salahuddin Kundi. There were 482 inmates in the prison at the time of the attack. A curfew is still in place in Dera Ismail Khan as authorities search for more of the fugitives.
Militants managed to smuggle 25 of their colleagues to the South Waziristan tribal area, located very close to Dera Ismail Khan, and plan to transport them to North Waziristan, Pakistan's main sanctuary for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, the Taliban commanders said.
It's unclear whether there are more escaped militants making their way to the tribal region.
Dera Ismail Khan's commissioner, Mushtaq Jadoon, said Tuesday that 25 "dangerous terrorists" had escaped.
A civilian adviser to the prison department in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Malik Mohammad Qasim, said at least 38 of those who escaped were either convicted of or on trial for terrorism.
The Taliban commanders said 18 of the 150 militants who took part in the attack on the prison received special commando training. The operation was the brainchild of Adnan Rasheed, a militant who was freed in an attack on a prison in the town of Bannu in April 2012. It was led by a commander named Khitab Mehsud, who was a close aide to slain Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
The militants had orders to complete the operation in an hour and not to spend more than 20 minutes in the prison, but the raid ended up taking two hours to complete, the commanders said. Earlier reports indicated the operation went on for over four hours.
The militants killed six policemen, six Shiite Muslim prisoners — one of whom was beheaded — and two civilians, said Jadoon, the commissioner. Many hard-line Sunni extremists consider minority Shiites to be heretics.
The militants didn't meet any resistance when they retreated back to South Waziristan, said the commanders.
Associated Press writer Riaz Khan contributed to this report from Peshawar.