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IRAQ: At least 14 dead in attempted escape by Al Qaeda-linked prisoners

May 8, 2011 |  4:43 am

A man accused of attacking a Baghdad church last year wrestled a gun from a guard overnight to free fellow Al Qaeda-affiliated detainees and launch an assault that killed at least 14 people, including a top counterterrorism officer, according to Iraqi officials and Associated Press reports.

Abu Huthaifa Battawi, who was being held in connection with an October church attack that killed 68 people, tried to drive out of Baghdad's Interior Ministry with fellow inmates when he was gunned down by guards Sunday, according to the Associated Press.

At least 10 prisoners and four Iraqi security forces were killed in the attack, including Brigadier Muaeid Mohammed Saleh, the head of a department responsible for combating terrorism and organized crime in eastern Baghdad, police and hospital officials said. The AP reported 17 dead.

Nine Iraqi police and soldiers were injured, as well as seven prisoners, according to Iraqi officials.

It was still unclear Sunday how a group of dangerous prisoners being held at one of the most secure facilities in Iraq nearly managed to escape.

The would-be escapees were all accused of belonging to Al Qaeda in Iraq, according to the AP.

Shortly before the escape attempt, they were being moved from a detention room to an interrogation room at the ministry grounds in eastern Baghdad when some of the detainees -- who were not handcuffed at the time -- attacked police who were guarding then, wrestling away their weapons and opening fire in a confrontation that last about two hours, according to police.

Two Interior Ministry officials told the Associated Press that Battawi launched the attack. One official said Battawi's hands had just been untied for his interrogation when he grabbed a guard's gun, shot the guard and moved on to another room, shooting a guard he found there.

Detainees seized four weapons, including an assault rifle and possibly grenades, an Iraqi lawmaker on the security and defense committee, Hakim Zamili, told the AP.

The prisoners then entered Saleh's office and shot him along with another officer in the room, the AP reported.

"I was in the next room close to Brigadier Muaeid's room and I heard shots fired and screams in the corridor. I opened the door and saw about four Al Qaeda detainees moving around and I closed the door back immediately," Saleh's bodyguard, Jawad Kadhum, told the AP.

"Then I heard one of them saying 'This is the director's room,' and I heard a flurry of gunshots," he said.

Officials told the AP that the prisoners appeared to have planned their escape. After killing Saleh, they seized a car and tried to drive out of the compound when a guard opened fire with a machine gun, killing them, an official told the AP.

Security forces investigating the attempted prison break Sunday said the detainees should have been restrained.

"I blame the security measures in this case because they were senior terrorists," said Maj. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, the top military spokesman in Baghdad, in an interview with the AP. "Tight security measures should have been taken."

An Interior Ministry official told the AP that guards violated procedure by keeping their weapons with them when moving the prisoners.

The incidents marks the latest embarrassment for Iraqi detention facilities.

In January, a dozen inmates, many believed to be affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq, managed to obtain uniforms and slip out of a detention center in the southern city of Basra undetected. Most remained at large despite a manhunt.

--Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Cairo and Raheem Salman in Baghdad