BANNU: After a successful military operation in Swat in 2009, the public was willing to believe government claims that it had managed to successfully establish its writ in volatile Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P).
However, after a planned Taliban operation in Bannu jail led to hundreds of prisoners breaking out of prison, this claim has come into serious question. It also raises concerns over the jail’s current security set-up – a common sentiment is that if 150 militants can travel down the hills and take command of the jail, they could just as well take control of Bannu city.
On paper, the security at the high-profile prison seemed full proof.
Surrounded by open fields, the jail is located opposite the posh Bannu township, at a ten-minute drive from the Frontier Region (FR) Peng. It’s also within two kilometres of three police stations.
The jail, which has three entry gates, is surrounded by huge cemented walls, the top of which are covered with barbed wire. Each gate is located further inside, so that one must pass through one gate to get to the other. The outermost gate is called the Phatak gate, and is situated on the main road.
One person is deployed at each of the four search towers. At the Phatak Gate, two armed men are deployed. In addition, there are three other men at the gate – one with an AK-47, another with a register to enter names of visitors and a third assigned with the duty to frisk visitors.
At the last gate to enter the jail, there is only one policeman, armed with just a baton.
A total of 151 police personnel are supposed to keep the jail secure – but on the day the militants mounted the assault, only 119 policemen were present and only 21 were performing their duties. Sources told The Express Tribune that eight policemen had been lent to Dera Ismail Khan Jail and four to Karak Jail. In addition, ten others were on leave and six were found absent from their duties.
A police official, who wished not to be named, told The Express Tribune that the first target of the Taliban was a search tower located just beside the Phatak gate which was blown up when a rocket was fired at it. Rockets were used to shatter the first and third gates, and hand grenades were used to smash the second.
“What could we do, they were above a hundred in strength with the latest weapons and we only had five Kalashnikovs. Tell me honestly, could you face such a situation?” the police official said.
The police official then called his brother and told him what was happening. “My brother told me that he has contacted high-ranking police officials. They were changing their uniform and would soon arrive. In all, it took around one hour to break the first and the second gate but we could not respond. We were empty-handed.”
“I could clearly see my death. I thought my last moments had arrived and I was going to be slaughtered or shot to death,” he said, adding that two members of the jail police who were deployed at the death cell, climbed up a tree to save their lives.
Two other policemen wore prisoners’ uniform as a cover and ran with the prisoners, unarmed and fearing for their lives.
“I called them to inquire about them but I started laughing when I came to know they had also escaped with the prisoners,” the official said.
He also said one man, who seemed to be leading the militants, was standing at the main gate, telling all those who were escaping: “Go, go, you are free now, just pray for us. Don’t forget to spare your life for Allah.”
The official said those who returned to jail informed the authorities that the group , after entering the FR area, asked all the prisoners if they were willing to leave for Miramshah. Those who declined were dropped off in Peng.
“Those who returned said suicide bombers and explosive-laden vehicles were also dispatched for the attack but returned as fresh as dispatched”, the official added.
Officials have said that all those rearrested or who returned voluntarily, will not be awarded further punishment as they were forced to escape.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 25th, 2012.