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Pakistani Prison Attack Raises Unsettling Questions

Pakistani police and security forces gather outside the prison in Bannu after the militant attack.
Pakistani police and security forces gather outside the prison in Bannu after the militant attack.
"Intelligence failure" is the most easily available excuse for the government in Pakistan following the daring Taliban jailbreak in the northern city of Bannu early on April 15.

According to Akbar Hoti, the police chief of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, where the jailbreak was carried out, between 150 and 200 attackers fired rockets on the main gate of the jail and released around 20 convicts described as "very dangerous," including Adnan Rashid, who was convicted of participating in an attack on former President Pervez Musharraf.

The information minister of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, told journalists on April 16 that the Taliban attackers had freed 384 prisoners.

Bannu borders the restive North Waziristan tribal agency and has been the scene of attacks on security officials in the past. However, the April 15 jailbreak was particularly shocking and raises many questions.

How did hundreds of Taliban militants manage to cross scores of police and army checkpoints inside the city, as well as entry and exit points to and from adjacent tribal areas?

Why did no police or army reinforcements reach the site, even though the attack continued for more than two hours?

And if an "intelligence failure" is really to blame, how can the security of other cities -- like Dera Ismail Khan, Kohat, and Peshawar, which are located on the periphery of the tribal districts -- be guaranteed in the days ahead?

The little or no resistance shown by prison guards points to the demoralization of the security force, making them sitting ducks for the Taliban and its supporters all over the country.

Many security experts and top officials in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government believe that the involvement of senior officials in the police and intelligence agencies cannot be ruled out.

Malak Naveed Khan, former chief of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa police, says it is unbelievable to think that 150 to 200 heavily armed men could have entered the city, broken into the prison, and taken away nearly 400 prisoners without anyone moving to intercept them at any one of numerous checkpoints.

Equally important are the statements of the prison's telephone operator, Shahab Khan, and Rahmatullah, one of the escaped prisoners who, with others, returned to the jail the next morning to surrender.

Shahab Khan said he was sending requests for reinforcements for more than two hours and that each time he was assured that help was on the way.

Rahmatullah said he saw 50 to 60 pickup trucks parked around the jail on the main highway, ostensibly used to transport the attackers, and heard the attackers shouting at the prisoners in Urdu to leave the vicinity.

So what really happened?

We'll have to wait at least 15 days for the conclusions of an inquiry report into the attack by the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government. That may provide some answers. But of course the world is still waiting for the results of an official inquiry into the events of May 2, 2011, in Abbottabad, when Osama bin Laden was killed.

Let's keep our fingers crossed.

-- Daud Khattak