Kinshasa - At least 300 prisoners have broken out of a jail in the strife-torn North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, provincial governor Julien Paluku said Tuesday.
The jailbreak took place on Sunday at Butembo in the Beni territory, more than 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of the provincial capital Goma, Paluku and media reports said.
“The sources vary, but I would say that more than 300 prisoners Ä out of about 350 Ä escaped from the prison at Butembo,” Paluku told AFP.
The UN-sponsored Radio Okapi reported that 372 inmates escaped, out of a total 399 detainees.
The mass escape took place after a local tribal Mai Mai militia force clashed with prison warders at the jail and disarmed those who resisted, Paluku said.
The Mai Mai were being taken by soldiers to Bunia, in neighbouring Orientale province, where they were to undergo military training before joining the army, when they stopped in Butembo, he added.
The Congolese army in 2012 began fighting a rebel group named M23 in North Kivu, and the province is rife with armed movements infamous for atrocities against civilians.
“We still don't know why, but the driver stopped in Butembo and some Mai Mai went off, saying that they planned to free those of their number in jail to go on together with them to Bunia,” the governor said.
“The prison guards tried to stop them and then shooting broke out,” he added. “The prisoners took advantage of the confusion to escape. There remained only about 15, and we have recaptured a score more.”
“At the slightest resistance from the prison warders, they (the Mai Mai) disarmed them and fired several shots into the air. One prison guard was hit and seriously wounded,” Omar Kavota, the deputy president of the federation of civil society non-governmental organisations in North Kivu, told AFP.
In a statement, the federation denounced “the army and Butembo police (for) powerlessly looking on” and said that their lack of action was “close to complicity”.
The federation said it feared “a sharp rise in insecurity” in affected territories and called for the arrest of the escaped prisoners.
The governor's office has warned local community leaders from Butembo to Beni to “check out on houses” and inform the police if they find any suspects. - Sapa-AFP