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Pakistan militants attack jail, escape with hundreds of inmates

Militants have attacked a jail in northwest Pakistan armed with bombs, mortars and guns, escaping with at least 230 prisoners. The attack came just hours before Pakistan's lawmakers began voting for a new president.

Up to 40 gunmen dressed in police uniforms bombed the outside wall of the Central Prison in the town of Dera Ismail Khan, 200 miles (320 km) west of Lahore, forcing their way in to free hundreds of prisoners, including a number of militants. The attack began around midnight on Monday and ended within several hours.

"Militants have attacked the Central Prison. They are heavily armed and firing mortar shells," district police chief Sohail Khalid told the news agency AFP during the siege.

Security forces engaged in a gun battle with the militants who detonated a series of bombs. It was not immediately clear how many sustained injuries in the attack.

Authorites imposed a curfew on the local area after hundreds of prisoners escaped.

The Taliban later claimed responsibility for the attack at the prison. According to Taliban spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid, the militants had freed roughly 300 inmates. Senior government official Mushtaq Jadoon estimated the figure was slightly lower.

"A total of 243 prisoners have escaped, six of them were later arrested by police," Jadoon told private TV channel ARY News, adding that "30 among the escaped prisoners were hardcore militants."

Presidential vote

The armed offensive came hours before Pakistan's parliament began voting for the country's new president. More than 1,000 members of the Senate, National Assembly and the four provincial assemblies started casting their votes for the largely ceremonial head of state on Tuesday.

The front-runner is a close ally of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who has pledged to meet with militant groups in an effort to curb sectarian violence. The winner will replace incumbent President Asif Ali Zardari.

Central Prison is located close to the lawless tribal regions bordering Afghanistan where Taliban and al Qaeda-linked insurgents are active. It houses hundreds of prisoners including high-profile al Qaeda militants.

kms, ccp/mkg (AFP, Reuters, dpa, AP)