DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – The Taliban have smuggled 25 militants they broke out of a prison in northwest Pakistan this week to one of the group's strongholds in the country's tribal region, two commanders said Wednesday.
The deadly raid late Monday night on the prison in the town of Dera Ismail Khan was codenamed "Freedom from Death," cost $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.
The attack sparked intense criticism of the government, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where the prison was located, since intelligence officials had reported a serious threat of attack. Even so, around 150 militants armed with guns, bombs and grenades were able to travel in vehicles and on motorbikes unhindered by security forces to the walls of the prison. The attackers then overwhelmed the guards defending the compound, freeing more than 250 prisoners and killing more than a dozen people.
The Taliban carried out a similar attack on a prison elsewhere in the northwest less than 18 months ago.
"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 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. 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.
The raid will likely lead to growing pressure on both the federal government and the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to come up with a comprehensive plan to fight Islamic extremism.
Both the ruling party at the federal level, Pakistan Muslim League-N, or PML-N, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, came to power advocating peace talks with the Taliban as the correct path to deal with militant violence. But negotiations have gone nowhere, and the militants have stepped up their attacks.
The PML-N announced about a month ago that it would hold a meeting of all political parties to come up with a security strategy. But the gathering has yet to happen, and it's unclear whether PTI will agree to participate.