BANNU, Pakistan (Reuters) - Dozens of Islamist militants stormed a prison in northwest Pakistan early on Sunday and freed nearly 400 inmates, including one on death row for trying to assassinate former president Pervez Musharraf, police officials said.
Pakistan's Taliban movement, which is close to al Qaeda, said it was behind the brazen assault by militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 assault rifles.
A police official said most of those who escaped from the jail in the northwestern town of Bannu were militants.
"I don't remember the exact time, but it must have been way past midnight. There were huge explosions. Plaster from the ceilings fell on us," said prisoner Malik Nazeef, speaking by mobile phone to Reuters from the jail in Bannu.
"Then there was gunfire. We didn't know what was happening."
While the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan have staged several jail breaks, such attacks are rare in nuclear-armed Pakistan, a strategic U.S. ally and one of the most unstable countries in the world.
"We have freed hundreds of our comrades in Bannu in this attack. Several of our people have reached their destinations, others are on their way," a Taliban spokesman said.
The claim could not be verified immediately.
The attackers fired rocket-propelled grenades at the black, metal gates of the prison, blowing them open. Debris was strewn on the ground inside, including locks that had been shot off doors. Walls were pockmarked with bullet holes.
An assault on this scale will likely generate fresh questions over Pakistan's progress in fighting militancy since it joined the 'war on terror' the United States launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. targets.
Such questions were also asked after U.S. special forces found Osama bin Laden in May last year in a Pakistani town where he had apparently been living for years, and killed him in a secret raid.
Pakistani officials describe bin Laden's long presence in Abbottabad as a security lapse and reject suggestions that members of the military and intelligence service were complicit in hiding him there.
Sunday's prison break could be a psychological blow to security forces following repeated government assertions that security crackdowns have weakened militant groups.
Pakistan is seen as critical to U.S. efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, yet Pakistan faces its own daunting security problems.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, is seen as the biggest threat, staging suicide bombings and attacks on military compounds.
In the unruly ethnic Pashtun tribal areas near the Afghan border, the Taliban control large pockets where they use floggings and beheadings to impose their version of Islamic law.
The Pakistani Taliban have close links with the Afghan Taliban. They move back and forth across the unmarked border, exchange intelligence and shelter each other in a region U.S. President Barack Obama has described as "the most dangerous place in the world".
A loose alliance of a dozen groups, the TTP began its battle against the state in 2007, after a bloody army raid on Islamabad's Red Mosque, which was controlled by its allies.
The assault, ordered by Musharraf, was widely seen as the event that sparked a full-blown Islamist militant campaign to toppled the government.
A police official identified one of the inmates who escaped early on Sunday as Adnan Rasheed, a "dangerous prisoner" who took part in one of the attempts to kill Musharraf.
"He was a mastermind in (one of the attacks) on Musharraf. These people came for him and took another 383 people too," the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Prisoner Nazeef described how tall, bearded men with AK-47 rifles yelled "God is Greatest", fired their weapons at the prison's ceilings, and asked inmates where Rasheed was held.
"One of them had a large hammer and tried to break the lock of our cell. It didn't work so they shot the lock off with their guns. They had wireless sets and were talking to each other. One of them then said that they had found Adnan Rasheed," he said.
"The entire activity in our block lasted almost an hour. I saw only 15 to 20 men but from the sound and gunfire, I could tell there were many more. None of them were wearing masks."
The attackers had long hair and were speaking Arabic as well as local languages, he said.
Paramilitary troops and security forces later sealed off the Bannu Central Jail, and a police official said that 384 prisoners had escaped, out of a total 944 prisoners there.
A Taliban commander said 150 of the prisoners fled to North Waziristan, near the Afghan border, home to some of the world's most feared militant groups.
"We rejoiced at their return with lots of celebratory firing and presented them with our honourable turbans," he told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Sheree Sardar in Islamabad and Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Robert Birsel and Tim Pearce