Afghan soldiers storm jail, ending bloody standoff
KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan troops stormed a notorious prison in a hail of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades Friday, ending a 10-hour standoff that began when four inmates once suspected of belonging to al-Qaida tried to escape. Four inmates and four guards were killed in the day’s violence.
Explosions rocked the crumbling, overcrowded Pul-e Charkhi jail – which holds Taliban and al-Qaida suspects as well as common criminals – as troops launched the assault just after nightfall.
The standoff began in the morning when four inmates – three Pakistanis and an Iraqi – used razors to attack a guard leading them to morning prayers. They took his AK-47 rifle, then beat and stabbed him to death, said Abdul Salam Bakhshi, the prison warden.
A gunbattle ensued that killed three other guards and two of the would-be escapees. The two surviving inmates, both Pakistani, scavenged a second gun and barricaded themselves with both rifles on the jail’s war-damaged second floor, Bakhshi said.
They remained holed up for 10 hours, taking pot shots at hundreds of security personnel ringing the jail, keeping them from reaching three wounded soldiers inside the complex.
In the evening assault, one soldier was wounded. Another soldier who called himself Zabullah came out, still panting, and told reporters: “We killed them.”
After one last burst of gunfire, troops were visibly relaxed and went through the pitch-black area with flashlights.
“We searched all the rooms, and it’s now under control, so we’re leaving,” said Amin Jan, an army commander.
Also at the prison are three Americans who are serving sentences of eight to 10 years for torturing Afghans on a freelance hunt for terrorists. Jonathan Idema, Brent Bennett and Edward Caraballo are seeking to overturn their convictions in a trial that embarrassed U.S. and NATO forces and sowed confusion about America’s role in Afghanistan.
Idema’s attorney, John Tiffany, said his client called him from the prison and said the Americans had been targeted for death by the four inmates who attempted the jailbreak.
Idema made other claims during his sometimes-bizarre trial, saying he was in daily contact with U.S. officials “at the highest level,” including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s office – but the U.S. government has described him as a vigilante working on his own. He had also accused the FBI of orchestrating his arrest.
During the standoff, about 200 police deployed outside the prison, joined by four German armored personnel carriers from the NATO-run International Security Assistance Force that keeps peace in the capital.
Jail officials used a loudspeaker to warn prisoners to “surrender or die.”
The four men who tried to escape had all once been held in a northern jail run by Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of country’s most powerful warlords, on suspicion of fighting alongside al-Qaida and the Taliban, though they were all released earlier this year, suggesting they were not considered high-level militants. They were re-arrested in Kabul for unspecified common crimes several months ago.
As the standoff dragged on past nine hours, five truckloads of Afghan soldiers arrived and deployed to the front and back of the prison’s thick stone walls. Several soldiers already had taken up positions on the roof.
Pul-e Charkhi, located on the capital’s outskirts, was the scene of summary executions under a series of Afghan regimes, most recently the hard-line Taliban. In August, a U.N. human rights expert urged the immediate release of an estimated 725 Taliban fighters taken prisoner in 2001, saying they were living in conditions that violate “every standard of human rights.”
The jail is unrelated to the detention facilities that the U.S. military runs for captured Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.