Iraqi security forces recaptured three al Qa'eda members on Friday, police said, two days after a daring breakout which officials believe was an inside job. Among those arrested was the apparent ringleader of a 16-strong group of escapees, 12 of whom are still at large. Meanwhile, about 100 guards and staff at the prison in Tikrit, capital of Salaheddin province north of Baghdad, were being questioned.
"Early this morning, our forces arrested Waleed Ayash, one of the al Qa'eda members who escaped from Tikrit prison Wednesday evening," said a high-ranking police officer in the province, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media. "Ayash planned the prisoner escape," he said, adding that the 34-year-old had been handed four death sentences for "dozens of crimes against police and military members, as well as civilians."
The officer said two other men were arrested in the same Albo Ajeel area, 15 kilometres east of Tikrit, where Ayash had been caught. The 16 men broke out of the prison, a former presidential palace, in Saddam Hussein's hometown by fleeing through a window and scaling a ladder to climb over the prison wall. One of them was already rearrested early on Thursday. Hundreds of policemen and soldiers were deployed on Tikrit's streets, while checkpoints were reinforced and security along Iraq's border with Syria was stepped up.
Forces in neighbouring cities such as Samarra were also on heightened alert. About 100 prison guards and staff are being questioned in connection with the breakout, the area's provincial governor said, blaming collusion or negligence for the security breach. "We suspect that they had accomplices inside (the prison) because there was such a high number of fugitives," said governor Mutashar Hussein Elewi.
"Either that or there was some kind of negligence in the administration of the prison." Interior minister Jawad Bolani issued the order to put guards and other prison workers under detention for questioning, Mr Elewi said. "They were not all around at the time but we have to punish those that did not do their job," he added. In the aftermath of the escape, the head of the province's police-controlled anti-terror force, Colonel Mohammed Salah al-Juburi, was fired, a police source said.
Interior ministry spokesman, Major General Abdel Karim Khalaf, said several local security officers responsible for prisoner surveillance were arrested in connection with the escape, but he declined to specify how many. The prisoners had only been transferred to the jail, which is run by the interior ministry, earlier on Wednesday evening, a police source said. The US army said it provided military dogs at the request of Iraqi authorities to search the immediate vicinity of the jail.
"We have also provided aerial surveillance to assist with the search of the city and outer lying areas," said spokesman Major Derrick Cheng. Posters with the pictures of the fugitives were distributed across Tikrit and the province. Iraq's prison system divides responsibility between the ministries of justice, interior and defence, with each of them running various detention facilities. Tikrit, a predominantly Sunni Arab town 180 kilometres from Baghdad, was home to now executed dictator Saddam and many of his henchmen.
US military commanders admit al Qa'eda remains a threat in Iraq but insist that its attempts to establish an Islamic caliphate in the war-torn country have failed. *AFP