DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – Taliban militants armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades battled their way into a prison in northwest Pakistan on Sunday, freeing close to 400 prisoners, including at least 20 described by police as "very dangerous" insurgents, authorities and the militants said.
The raid by more than 100 fighters was a dramatic display of the strength of the insurgency gripping the nuclear-armed country. The escaped prisoners may now rejoin the fight, giving momentum and a propaganda boost to a movement that has killed thousands of Pakistani officials and ordinary citizens since 2007.
The attackers stormed the prison before dawn in the city of Bannu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province close to the Afghan border, said police officer Shafique Khan. They used explosives and hand grenades to knock down the main gates and two walls, said Bannu prison superintendent Zahid Khan.
"They were carrying modern and heavy weapons," said Zahid Khan. "They fired rockets."
Once inside the building, the attackers headed straight to the area of the prison where death-row prisoners were being kept, he said. They fought with guards for around two hours, setting part of the prison on fire before freeing the 380 inmates, including at least 20 "very dangerous Taliban militants," said Shafique.
Provincial police chief Akbar Hoti said authorities suspected the militants may have had inside help from prison officials.
"I think the officials did not respond as they could have," Hoti told reporters. "It is also suspicious how the attackers could have exact information about their comrades."
The militants coordinated with each other using radio handsets as they freed their colleagues in different parts of the prison, said one of the prisoners who did not escape, Amanullah Khan.
"They had hammers to break the locks and doors," he said. "They shot at locks when they failed to break them open."
The militants shouted "God is great" and "Long live the Taliban" when they freed Adnan Rashid, who was on death row for his involvement in an assassination attempt against former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, said Amanullah Khan. They honored him by placing a turban on his head, he said.
The prison in Bannu housed 944 inmates. The government used the prison as the main facility to detain scores of Taliban militants arrested in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said provincial minister Bashir Bilour.
"They have previously been in separate prisons, but for some time they have been shifted to this prison," said Bilour.
He did not know exactly how many militants were released by the attackers.
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Asimullah Mehsud claimed nearly 150 militants were freed and made it safely to Mir Ali, a town in the North Waziristan tribal area, the group's main sanctuary. Militants beat drums to welcome them when they arrived, he said.
Pakistan's military has launched a series of operations against the Pakistani Taliban, which has forged alliances with al-Qaida and other transnational militant movements based along the Afghan border. The movement is closely linked to the Afghan Taliban, which is battling U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Soldiers and police have killed or arrested hundreds of militants, but the insurgency has proved resilient. Insurgents have carried out suicide bombings and other attacks across the country in retaliation, raising doubts in some quarters over whether the county can survive. Prison breakouts like the one Sunday have been rare.
Associated Press writer Asif Shahzad contributed to this report from Islamabad.