BAGHDAD: Militants attacked two Iraqi prisons, including notorious Abu Ghraib, with mortars, bombs and gunfire, freeing at least 500 inmates in assaults that cost more than 40 lives, officials said Monday.
The coordinated attacks on Taji prison, north of Baghdad, and Abu Ghraib, west of the capital, were launched on Sunday night and triggered fighting that raged for around 10 hours, officials said.
Abu Ghraib prison, already infamous as a centre for the torture of opponents of now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, gained further notoriety in 2004 when graphic pictures emerged showing prisoners being humiliated and abused by their US guards.
A frenzy of comments posted on social media, including some Twitter accounts apparently operated by militants, claimed that thousands of prisoners had escaped.
The two prisons had held around 10,000 inmates between them, an interior ministry official said.
"About 500 prisoners escaped from Abu Ghraib prison," Hakem al-Zamili, a member of the parliamentary security and defence committee, told AFP.
He said the escaped prisoners were "terrorists" but that, to his knowledge, no inmates managed to break out from Taji.
However, MP Shwan Taha, also a security and defence committee member, said in an online statement that between 500 and 1,000 inmates escaped from the two prisons.
Officials said at least 20 members of the security forces were killed and 40 wounded in the attacks.
And the justice ministry's spokesperson said 21 inmates were killed and 25 wounded in rioting at the prisons.
It was not immediately clear how many of the militants who attacked the prison were killed, wounded or captured.
The attacks were launched at around 9:30 pm on Sunday when the militants fired mortar rounds at the prisons.
Car bombs were detonated near the entrances to the prisons, while three suicide bombers attacked the Taji prison, a police colonel said.
Five roadside bombs also exploded near the prison in Taji.
Fighting continued throughout the night as the military deployed aircraft and sent in reinforcements around the two facilities.
The situation was eventually brought under control on Monday morning, according to the colonel.
The interior ministry had issued a statement before midnight on Sunday saying the attacks had already been foiled.
A statement released by the ministry on Monday however said that prisoners had escaped and were still on the loose.
"This incident resulted in the escape of a number of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison" but none from that in Taji, the statement said, adding that an initial investigation indicated that some prison guards were culpable.
The attacks on the prisons came a year after al Qaeda's Iraq front group announced it would target the country's justice system.
"The first priority in this is releasing Muslim prisoners everywhere, and chasing and eliminating judges and investigators and their guards," said an audio message attributed to the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Prisons in Iraq have previously been hit by escape attempts, uprisings and other unrest.
Deadly violence also hit security forces in northern Iraq on Monday.
Iraq has faced years of attacks by militants, but analysts say a fresh upsurge of violence has been fuelled by discontent among members of its Sunni Arab minority, which the Shia-led government has failed to address.