RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Pakistan, militants armed with heavy weapons have attacked a prison not far from the border with Afghanistan. According to police, around 250 prisoners were freed. The Pakistani Taliban is taking responsibility for the violent attack, which included mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The hours-long middle-of-the-night battle left at least a dozen people dead, guards and civilians. With us now from the capital Islamabad is Sebastian Abbot. He's the bureau chief for the Associated Press there, and thank you for joining us.
SEBASTIAN ABBOTT: Sure. My pleasure.
MONTAGNE: So tell us more about this jail break. It seems like this assault went on for hours.
ABBOTT: It began at about 11:30 p.m. on Monday night when dozens of militants approached the jail in vehicles and on motorcycles. The attack lasted for about four and a half hours when the militants finally escaped with over 250 prisoners. The militants began by setting off bombs along the walls of the jail, a huge explosion at first and then dozens of smaller bombs were set up that collapsed the walls of the jail and allowed a smaller group of militants to zoom in on motorcycles.
Intelligence officials said those militants were disguised in police uniforms. They rode in. They actually had megaphones. They were calling out the names of specific prisoners they were looking for. They went around and blew open the cells to release the various prisoners and then, even though they were battling with security forces, managed to escape.
MONTAGNE: Well, it sounds like the security people at the prison were outgunned.
ABBOTT: Yeah, it was a very large group of militants that attacked the prison. Intelligence officials say at least around 70 militants. The Pakistani Taliban actually claimed it was about twice that number, and even though the army came in and reinforced the police who were trying to protect the prison, it just seems like they were outgunned.
MONTAGNE: And who were they looking to free? You say they were calling out names of particular prisoners.
ABBOTT: It's unclear at this point exactly who the prisoners they were calling out were. We do know that out of the more than 250 prisoners that were freed, officials have identified 25 of those as dangerous terrorists, but they haven't actually provided the names yet, so we don't know which particular militants they managed to free.
MONTAGNE: But one imagines all of this effort was in the direction of trying to get their own people out of that prison.
ABBOTT: Yeah, exactly. I mean it resembles an attack that they carried out over a year ago in April 2012. They attacked a prison elsewhere in the northwest and freed several hundred prisoners, including at least 20 significant militants. One of them was a guy, Adnan Rasheed, who actually gained attention recently because he wrote a letter to teenage activist Malala Yousefzai, who was shot by the Taliban earlier this year, basically saying he wished she hadn't been attacked and said she was targeted for speaking ill of the Taliban.
So clearly in that prison break, they were very focused on freeing a very important militant in their group, so I wouldn't be surprised if it was the same thing this time. We just don't yet know who the specific militants were.
MONTAGNE: I gather that the police there have imposed a curfew on the city and are asking residents to stay inside. I mean what's going on? How likely it is that they're going to be able to round up these prisoners?
ABBOTT: It could be difficult. Dera Ismail Khan, the town, is very close to Pakistan's tribal region, a major militant sanctuary, and I wouldn't be surprised if many of the prisoners and the militants escaped in that direction, an area where it would be more difficult for authorities to track them down.
MONTAGNE: The tribal regions where it's very hard for Pakistani authorities to get in.
ABBOTT: Yeah. It's a more remote area, most developed where the Taliban has historically had their main sanctuaries in the country.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
ABBOTT: Sure, my pleasure.
MONTAGNE: Sebastian Abbott is the AP bureau chief in Islamabad, Pakistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.