Four prisoners with links to al Qaida being guarded by American troops have escaped from a maximum-security prison in Baghdad and are still at large, US and Iraqi officials have said.
The breakout from Karkh Prison, formerly called Camp Cropper, is an embarrassment for the US military, which has handed over control of all of the detention facilities it used to run to the Iraqi government. But at the request of the Iraqis, the US had retained custody over some of the most dangerous prisoners, including those with ties to terrorist groups or Saddam Hussein's former regime.
US troops found two detainees attempting to escape from the compound on Wednesday evening, and when they conducted a sweep of the whole facility, they discovered that four other detainees were missing.
An Iraqi military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said the Americans informed them on Thursday morning that four Iraqis being held by the US had broken out of the facility, although it was not clear exactly when or how they escaped. He said the men were linked to al Qaida and facing the death penalty.
The top American commander in Iraq, Gen Lloyd Austin, and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki discussed the prison break during a high-level meeting on Thursday, said an official with knowledge of the meeting. The official said Gen Austin apologised to Mr Maliki and said the people responsible for the escape would be held accountable.
This is not the first time that prisoners have broken out of American-run detention facilities in Iraq; 11 Iraqis broke out of the US's Camp Bucca in April 2005 although many were later recaptured. A month earlier U.S. officials there discovered a 600-foot tunnel leading out of Camp Bucca.
In 2006, five detainees escaped from the Fort Suse Theater internment facility near Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad; they were later apprehended by Kurdish security officials.
An Iraqi security official said troops cordoned off the area near the prison - including the Jihad neighbourhood and the airport, where the facility is located, as part of the search for the fugitives. Jihad residents said there was an intense Iraqi military presence in the neighborhood, and locals were banned from driving.
The prisoners who remain in U.S custody are "former regime elements, al-Qaida operatives and very dangerous detainees," said Cannon during a previous interview. He said they would eventually be handed over to the Iraqi government before American forces pull out of the country entirely by the end of next year.
Thursday's escape is the second since the U.S. transferred custody of the detention facility to the Iraqis.