BAGHDAD, July 22: Hundreds of Iraqi inmates escaped after insurgents armed with mortars and machines guns launched coordinated late-night assaults on two high-security prisons, sparking gun battles that left dozens of people dead, officials said on Monday.
In a separate attack in northern Iraq, a suicide car bomber targeted an army convoy on Monday, killing 13 people, officials said.
The jailbreaks targeted prisons in Taji and Abu Ghraib, which are home to thousands of prisoners including convicted Al Qaeda militants. Iraq has seen a surge of violence since April, and the assaults on the prison laid bare the degree to which security has eroded in the country in recent months.
Three lawmakers on the parliament's security and defence committee said prisoners were able to escape from Abu Ghraib during the attack.
Lawmakers Hakim al-Zamili and Shawan Mohammed Taha each said that about 500 prisoners managed to escape and that a manhunt is under way, although al-Zamili said many of them have since been captured or killed.
''This big security failure shows that the top security commanders have failed to sort out any solutions for the ongoing security deterioration,” Taha said.
“The terrorists, not the security forces, are now taking the initiative.’’
Another lawmaker, Iskandar Witwit, confirmed that some prisoners escaped but did not say how many. Earlier, Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan Ibrahim said that no prisoners had escaped.
Justice Ministry spokesman Wissam al-Firaiji said a total of 21 prisoners were killed and another 25 wounded during the fighting at both facilities. He was unable to confirm reports that prisoners had escaped, saying authorities were still counting the inmates.
The coordinated assaults began late Sunday with the attackers detonating bombs and lobbing mortar rounds at Taji prison, 20 kilometres north of Baghdad.
A suicide car bomber then attacked the main gate while another suicide bomber blew himself up nearby, setting off clashes between militants and the guards, according to police. As the battle raged for about two hours outside, rioting inmates set fire to blankets and furniture, police said. Army helicopters were called in to help thwart the attacks, according to the Interior Ministry.
Fifteen soldiers were killed and 13 others were wounded in the Taji attack, ministry officials said. At least six militants were also reported killed.
Around the same time, a similar raid unfolded at the prison in Abu Ghraib in Baghdad's western suburbs. Insurgents there struck the prison walls with mortar rounds and a car bomb, and at least one militant blew himself up at the main gate. Ten policemen were killed and 19 others were wounded, the officials said. Four militants were reported killed in that attack.
Hospital officials confirmed the casualties. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.—AP