In a daring escape, 16 prisoners, five of them awaiting execution, apparently crawled through a window of an Iraqi jail before fanning out in different directions, police and local officials said Thursday.
The escape in the northern town of Tikrit, which raised concerns about corruption within security forces, resulted in a curfew in the birthplace of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, as authorities hunted for the men.
At least two of the fugitives were later captured, one at a checkpoint in Tikrit and another elsewhere in Salahuddin province, outside Samarra, the provincial capital, police said.
Four prison guards were under investigation on suspicion of helping the detainees escape. The prison director was dismissed and detained while under investigation, officials said.
The prisoners had been sharing a cell and escaped through the window late Wednesday after they cut out its metal bars, then managed to get out of the prison yard and swim across a nearby river before separating, police said.
The most prominent escapee was identified as Waleed Ayash, a suspected leader of the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq who the government blames for the killing of police and civilians in Dhuluiya, another town in Salahuddin.
Salahuddin Gov. Muttashar Hussein Alaywi, told the U.S.-funded Al Hurra satellite news channel that prison guards were probably to blame for the escape.
“Either there was some facilitation provided by those overseeing the guarding [of the prison] or it was a neglect that took place on their part,” Alaywi said.
The U.S. is in the process of transferring its detainees to Iraqi custody or releasing them. Last week, the U.S. military shut its largest detention facility, Camp Bucca, in southern Iraq.
Iraqi detention facilities have long had a reputation for poor living conditions and rights violations. This month, detainees rioted at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghad to protest living conditions.
Hameed is a staff writer in The Times’ Baghdad Bureau. A special correspondent in Samarra contributed to this report.