- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Prisoners loyal to Osama bin Laden overpowered their Pakistani guards yesterday near the border village of Parachinar, sparking gunbattles that left at least 12 dead and more than 100 al Qaeda terrorists on the loose in Pakistan.
The al Qaeda prisoners, numbering about 150, were captured on Tuesday by Pakistani army forces and local tribal police as they tried to flee into Pakistan from the Tora Bora area in Afghanistan, where heavy U.S. bombing had driven them from a network of caves.
The prisoner revolt took place as authorities attempted to move nearly all of Tuesday's catch, in a convoy of three buses, to prisons in the city of Peshawar, about 100 miles to the east.
Most were Arabs from Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other nations of the Middle East and North Africa. They were drawn to Afghanistan by bin Laden's plea for Muslim warriors to battle the West.
Pakistani and local officials said at least six prisoners and six guards were killed. A later account from the area put the death toll at 17. According to a source from the area, at least six of the prisoners were recaptured.
However, there were conflicting reports about the number of prisoners killed and recaptured. The Associated Press, quoting the provincial government, said seven Arabs and six security officials were killed, and tribal security officials and soldiers recaptured 21 prisoners.
In rapid succession, prisoners hijacked the three buses, each carrying 48 prisoners who had been captured a day earlier while attempting to escape from Tora Bora. At least one of the three buses overturned.
Weeks of constant U.S. bombing and waves of ground assaults by local Afghan forces in Tora Bora have forced as many as 2,000 fighters to flee along the only open escape routes toward the Pakistani border about 30 miles to the south.
On Tuesday, Pakistani troops and local police achieved a breakthrough of sorts, capturing 156 fighters as they attempted to sneak across the border in small groups, according to the private Afghan Islamic Press.
The Pakistan border, a zigzagging, 1,400-mile line through some of the world's roughest mountain terrain, is impossible to seal with its hundreds of unmarked mountain passes and old smuggling trails.
Until Tuesday's big catch, Pakistani troops and tribal police had captured less than 100 fighters from Afghanistan.
A visit to the border area by a reporter for The Washington Times earlier this week found little evidence of border security other than two Pakistani helicopters flying at a height where it would be difficult, if not impossible, to see anyone on the ground.
The Pakistani army rushed more troops to the area yesterday after discovering that nearly every prisoner captured on Tuesday had gotten away.
"A number of them have been rounded up and captured. The rest of them are surrounded, and we hope to get them soon," said Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, chief spokesman for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
"There is an intense search going on, and people in the area say that a gunbattle is under way," said Rifatullah Orakzai, a reporter for the Peshawar-based Khyber Mail newspaper, whose family lives in the area where the hijacking occurred.
He said that at least six prisoners had been recaptured.
Earlier this month, Pakistani troops for the first time in the nation's history entered autonomous tribal areas under an agreement with local chiefs in an attempt to capture bin Laden and his fleeing al Qaeda fighters.
Troops have since set up more than 300 checkpoints and now patrol unmarked mountain passes and trails on horseback and with helicopters.
In Tora Bora, the search continued yesterday for remaining al Qaeda fighters and clues to the whereabouts of bin Laden, who is blamed for the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Local Afghan troops swept abandoned caves for stragglers to take prisoner and for documents left behind, while U.S. helicopters kept watch on night missions through nearby mountain valleys.
Pakistani tribesmen have been sympathetic to bin Laden and to Afghanistan's ousted Taliban government, and have been accused of helping al Qaeda fighters escape with assistance from tribal cousins across the border in Afghanistan.
"In the beginning it was that way," said Mohammed Riaz Khan, Peshawar bureau chief of the Nation newspaper. "But now [tribesmen] support the government policy. They allowed army troops into their areas for the first time ever."
Yesterday's prisoner revolt was reminiscent of a rebellion by captured al Qaeda fighters last month in northern Afghanistan. They seized the guards' weapons, sparking a battle at a fortress near Mazar-e-Sharif. CIA operative Johnny "Mike" Spann was killed, as were dozens of guards and hundreds of prisoners.

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