KABUL, Afghanistan – Hundreds of Afghan soldiers with tanks and grenade-launchers surrounded Kabul's main prison Sunday after rioting inmates seized control of much of the facility in an uprising that officials blamed on Al Qaeda and Taliban militants.
Local media reported several people were killed and dozens injured. But it appeared security forces had yet to gain access to parts of the jail under prisoners' control, so officials could not confirm reports of casualties. One official said at least four inmates were injured.
Gunshots occasionally rang out troops tried to keep the prisoners bottled up. Officials said the rioters did not have any firearms but had armed themselves with small knives and clubs fashioned from wrecked furniture.
Smoke could be seen curling out of some cell windows, where inmates apparently set fire to bedding and furniture.
Government negotiators late Sunday suspended talks to end the standoff at the notorious Policharki jail, which later this year is slated to receive dozens more Afghans currently in U.S. military's Guantanamo prison.
The riot broke out late Saturday in Block Two of the prison, which houses about 1,300 of the 2,000 inmates. Officials said the violence began when inmates refused to put on new uniforms, which were ordered after seven Taliban prisoners escaped last month by disguising themselves as visitors.
Officials said some 350 Al Qaeda and Taliban loyalists were among the inmates in that block. Abdul Salaam Bakshi, chief of prisons in Afghanistan, accused them of inciting the other prisoners, mostly common criminals.
He said no inmates escaped from the prison block but guards had been forced out.
The Afghan army said it deployed 800 soldiers around the prison. Along with NATO peacekeepers, they parked at least 10 tanks and armored personnel carriers outside the gates.
"We have surrounded the jail. There's no way to escape," Mohammed Qasim Hashimzai, deputy justice minister, said.
Hashimzai, who was part of a government delegation that came to negotiate with the prisoners, said at least four inmates had been hurt.
He said about 100 of the rioters from Block Two had taken control of the neighboring wing of the jail housing about 70 women.
Another senior government official, who would speak only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said prisoners had dug a tunnel to the women's wing — explaining how they had managed to infiltrate it.
Hashimzai said attempts to negotiate the release of the women from the rioters' control floundered because of disunity among the inmates and confusion over their various demands. Prisoners also backtracked on an agreement to hand over their injured to the International Red Cross, he said.
"Unfortunately, the prisoners have no unity and have different demands. There's no one leader who can talk to us," Hashimzai said as he left the prison around dusk, adding that officials would try to resume negotiations Monday.
He gave no details about the prisoners' demands. But Ezamary, an army battalion commander who like many Afghans uses only a single name, said inmates had dropped notes from the windows complaining about the justice system and prison conditions.
"We are human beings!" he quoted inmates as shouting. Others could be heard bellowing "God is great!" between volleys of gunfire.
Policharki, which lies on the eastern outskirts of Kabul, was built in the 1970s and has earned notoriety for its harsh and crowded conditions. It is under renovation to improve living conditions and security.
Afghan officials say some 110 Afghan terrorism suspects are expected to be transferred there later this year from the prison at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Riots and breakouts have cast doubts over its readiness.
In December 2004, four inmates and four guards died during a 10-hour standoff that started when Al Qaeda militants used razors to wrest guns from guards and then tried to break out. Afghan troops stormed the prison and fired guns and rocket-propelled grenades to retake control.