Update: Suspected Islamists free 1,300 prisoners from east DR Congo jail

People gather at the entrance of Kangbay prison in Beni, Congo, Tuesday, Oct. 20. 2020. An official in eastern Congo says more than 1,300 inmates have escaped from the central prison in Beni after an attack by rebels of the Allied Democratic Forces. (AP Photo/Al-hadji Kudra Maliro)
People gather at the entrance of Kangbay prison in Beni, Congo, Tuesday, Oct. 20. 2020. (AP Photo/Al-hadji Kudra Maliro)

Armed men freed more than 1,300 prisoners from a jail in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in a coordinated attack on Tuesday, the town’s mayor said, blaming an Islamist militant group operating in the area.

Only 110 of 1,456 inmates, including a number of militia fighters, remained following the simultaneous early-morning assaults on the Kangbayi central prison in Beni and the military camp defending it, said Modeste Bakwanamaha.

Two inmates were shot dead during Tuesday’s raid, which started at around 4:30 a.m., police said on Twitter.

The bolt on the prison’s front door appeared to be cut, as well as the metal grate behind it, Reuters TV footage in the aftermath of the raid showed.

“We were sleeping in the morning, but around 4:00 we heard a really loud exchange of fire,” said Lukiya Bafana Ruban, one of the few inmates who decided not to flee.

Kangbayi prison holds members of local rebel groups as well as ADF fighters.

Bakwanamaha said there were rumors ADF fighters in the prison were preparing a break-out in the days preceding the attack.

By midday around 20 prisoners had returned to the prison, he added.

“The attackers, who came in large numbers, managed to break the door with electrical equipment,” Bakwanamaha told Reuters. “We believe it was the ADF who did this.”

Islamic State said fighters from its Central African Province franchise carried out the attack, according to its AMAQ news agency. The group has claimed responsibility for several suspected ADF attacks in the past.

But U.N. experts have consistently found that claims ADF is linked to international jihadists are overblown or false, according to Dan Fahey, a former U.N. investigator.

Escapes are common from Congo’s overcrowded and poorly secured prisons. A similar number of inmates escaped when the same jail was attacked in June 2017.