Islamic rebel group claims responsibility for Nigerian prison break

REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG -- Heavily armed gunmen on motorbikes stormed a Nigerian prison, blew open the front gate and freed 119 inmates, authorities said Thursday.

Islamic rebel group, Boko Haram, claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack in the town of Koton-Karifi in Koji state, which left one guard dead. The group said seven Boko Haram members were among those freed.

About 25 inmates were later recaptured, according to Nigerian prison officials.

Boko Haram, responsible for several major suicide bomb attacks since last year, has a history of freeing its members from prison, along with other inmates. In 2010, it set free about 750 prisoners in Bauchi state, including many Boko Haram members. It also freed prisoners in a series of coordinated attacks on the northern city of Kano last month.

The group has launched hundreds of deadly attacks against govenrment security forces, politicians and the UN, in its fight to impose Islamic law across Nigeria and to ban secular education. Its name means "education is a sin."

Wednesday's prison attack by nearly 20 gunmen occurred further south than the group's usual sphere of operations in the northern and predominantly Muslim states.

Nigerian authorities earlier denied there were Boko Haram members in the jail. Instead, a spokeswoman for the prison authority in Koji state, Hadiza Aminu, told Nigeria's Vanguard newspaper that it was believed the attackers were members of a robbery gang freeing other members of the gang.

The attack underscores the security problems in Nigerian jails, and the ready access to weapons for Boko Haram militants and others. Boko Haram has made a practice of reinvigorating its ranks by freeing jailed members.

Nigeria's northern states, with mass unemployment and a sense of alienation from southern politicians, makes fertile recruiting ground for the rebel group.

Nigeria has about 45,000 prisoners, 70% of them awaiting trial, according to Amnesty International's 2011 report on human rights in the West African nation. Inmates wait an average of five years in jail before facing trial, according to the report.

All 119 escapees in Wednesday's attack had been awaiting trial.

"Human rights violations are prevalent in Nigeria's justice system. Arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and failure to hold trials within a reasonable tomes are features of many inmates' experience. Seven out of 10 people held behind bars in Nigeria's prisons have not been convicted of any offense. They are waiting in appalling conditions to be tried," the report said.

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-- Robyn Dixon

 
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