- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan troops stormed a notorious prison in a hail of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades yesterday, ending a deadly 10-hour standoff that began when four inmates 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 Qaeda suspects as well as common criminals, as troops launched the assault just after nightfall. Soldiers reported the last two prisoners were holding out against authorities.

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’s warden.

A gunbattle ensued that killed three other guards and two of the prisoners trying to escape. The two surviving inmates, both Pakistanis, scavenged a second gun and barricaded themselves with both rifles on the jail’s war-damaged second floor, Mr. Bakhshi said.

They remained holed up for 10 hours, taking pot shots at the hundreds of security personnel ringing the jail, keeping them from reaching three wounded soldiers trapped inside the complex.

In the evening assault, one soldier was wounded. Another soldier who called himself Zabullah came out, still out of breath, 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.

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 Qaeda and the Taliban, though they were all released earlier this year, suggesting they were not considered high-level militants. They were rearrested in Kabul for unspecified common crimes several months ago.

Pul-e Charkhi, located on the capital’s outskirts, is notorious as the scene of summary executions under a series of Afghan regimes, most recently the hard-line Taliban.

Three Americans are serving sentences of eight to 10 years there 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 the United States’ role in Afghanistan.

They were being held on a different floor than the one where the standoff took place. Officials have said they were being held in better conditions than local inmates, presumably in a special wing.

The jail is unrelated to the detention facilities that the U.S. military runs for captured Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.

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