KABUL, Afghanistan – A spasm of violence broke a fragile truce at Kabul's main prison Tuesday as rioting inmates tried to push down a gate and police fired on them, killing one and wounding three, officials said. An American prisoner said inmates had threatened his life.
Outside the jail, women beat the ground as their children wailed, fearful that loved ones in the facility have been killed in the three-day standoff.
The two sides agreed to a truce late Monday, but the deal collapsed 24 hours later over a demand by authorities that inmates move to another wing of the lockup, said Abdul Halik, a police commander.
The inmates refused, saying conditions in the new block were no better than the current one. They then tried to break down a gate leading into a courtyard where hundreds of police and soldiers have taken up positions, he said.
Security forces opened fire, killing an inmate and wounding three others until the prisoners, armed with knives and clubs, withdrew, the commander said. Dozens of police reinforcements rushed to the prison, but the fighting was over within minutes.
Security forces who have surrounded the prison on the outskirts of the Afghan capital on Wednesday prevented journalists from approaching closer than about a half mile. Afghan officials said it was "quiet" inside, and there was no sound of gunfire.
An American prisoner, Edward Caraballo, of New York, said the prisoners had threatened him on Tuesday but had since backed off.
"Hopefully the situation will quiet down so I can walk out of here," he told The Associated Press by cell phone. "I just want to get out of here."
Caraballo, one of three Americans held at the prison, is serving a two-year sentence. He was arrested in July 2004, along with Jonathan Idema and Brent Bennett, and accused of running a private jail in Kabul as part of a freelance hunt for terrorists. Caraballo says he is a journalist and had believed he was chronicling a legitimate counter-terror operation.
He said the other two Americans were held in a different part of the prison, separate from other inmates.
Caraballo said all the doors inside Block One had been ripped down and the prisoners are moving around freely inside, and had told him to stay in his cell.
"They said they were going to chop my head off. They said they were going to beat me and take my phone. At different times of the day they say different things. At some times, they say I am their Muslim brother and that they mean me no harm," he said.
Caraballo, who converted to Islam after entering the prison, said he had been told by other prisoners to contact the media — apparently to raise attention to what was happening inside.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said the embassy was aware of media reports about Caraballo and wanted to see a peaceful resolution to the standoff at the prison.
"We are continuing to closely monitor the situation at the Policharki Prison and are in regular contact with the authorities. We would like to see the government of Afghanistan resolve this situation in a peaceful manner," he said.
The prisoners have made a range of demands, including a general amnesty for an unspecified number of inmates and new trials for others, according to Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, the chief government negotiator.
The earlier truce allowed 17 of the most seriously wounded prisoners to be rushed to a hospital, along with the bodies of the dead, said Gen. Zamarai, the army commander in charge of security at the jail.
Authorities late Sunday cut off supplies of water, electricity and food to the roughly 2,000 prisoners, including some 70 women and a handful of their children who live with them. But the supplies were restored a day later.
Dozens of relatives of the inmates came to the prison Tuesday and pleaded for news of their family members. One woman covered in an all-encompassing burqa kissed the feet of a journalist, begging him for information.
"My son is innocent. We're afraid he is dead," said Zubaida Gul, as tears ran down her face and she beat her fists on the ground in front of a line of guards. "Please tell me how he is." The guards did not react.
Another woman said she was afraid for her brother, Abdul Baseer, a convicted murderer, because conditions in the prison were terrible.
"This is not a jail, it's a cemetery," said the woman, who gave her name only as Mariam. "No one has any rights once they've gone inside. I doubt I will ever see him again."
She said the international community has an obligation to improve conditions at the prison.
Policharki Prison was built in the 1970s and is notorious for harsh and crowded conditions.
Some of the prison blocks are being renovated ahead of the expected arrival of some 110 Afghan terror suspects later this year from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but there has been little work on the rest of the facility.
Authorities have threatened to storm the prison if a deal isn't reached, though no deadline has been set.
Violence erupted late Saturday after prisoners refused to put on new uniforms, delivered in response to a breakout last month by seven Taliban prisoners who had disguised themselves as visitors.