BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Three senior Islamist militants escaped from their cells in clashes overnight at a police station in Iraq's western city of Al-Ramadi, which killed at least seven police and seven militants, officials said.
Prisoners being held at the Al-Fursan facility overpowered a policeman who entered a cell early on December 26, stealing the man's weapon and killing him, said Major General Tariq Yusuf, police commander for Al-Anbar Governorate.
Six other police officers, including a lieutenant colonel and a captain, were killed in subsequent clashes and six were wounded, Yusuf said. Seven of the militants inside the police prison were killed in the fighting, he said.
Police imposed a curfew and searched homes the following morning in Al-Ramadi, a largely peaceful city 100 kilometers west of Baghdad, Yusuf said.
An Interior Ministry official, who requested anonymity, put the death toll among police at 10 and said that Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Ghaini al-Dulaimi, who heads the station, died.
Both Yusuf, also known as Tariq al-Dulaimi, and the ministry official said three leaders of the Al-Qaeda-linked Sunni Islamist group Islamic State in Iraq escaped in the fighting.
The Interior Ministry official said that 23 out of a total of 40 detainees initially escaped but were later recaptured.
Al-Anbar Governorate, a vast desert area bordering Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, was once the heart of Iraq's Sunni insurgency.
But it became far quieter after local Sunni Arabs began supporting U.S. efforts against Al-Qaeda and other militants in late 2006.
The United States handed security control of Al-Anbar to the Iraqi government in September, but U.S. Marines are still stationed in the province.
Yusuf said that police were going house to house with photos of the escaped inmates. He pledged the militants would be captured.
"The people of this city will help us bring them back to justice," he said.