PUL-I-CHARKHI, Afghanistan, Feb 26: Taliban and al Qaeda militants took control of a wing of the Afghan capital's main high security prison and at least 30 prisoners were wounded in attempts to quell the riot, officials said today.
The unrest erupted on yesterday night after prisoners led by Taliban and al Qaeda militants took two female guards captive during a row over attempts to implement a new rule requiring inmates to wear prison uniforms, government officials said.
''As far as we know, some 1,500 prisoners are involved in this incident,'' a security official told Reuters on condition he was not identified.
''It went out of control and a clash broke out between the prisoners, including many Taliban, and the police, in which 30 people have been wounded,'' he said.
Bursts of gunfire were heard from within the sprawling prison compound on the eastern outskirts of Kabul yesterday night and today morning.
Heavily armed police and troops backed by tanks and armoured personnel carriers took positions outside the perimeter and security forces prevented journalists from approaching.
Deputy Justice Minister Mohammad Qasim Hashimzai, who was tasked with quelling the riot, said four prisoners were wounded while trying to escape from the prison.
''I have also heard that 20 more prisoners have been wounded, but the people behind this unrest are not ready to hand them over to us for treatment,'' he told reporters outside the prison.
He said the situation was under control, but the riot was not over.
''THEY STILL CONTROL THE WING''
''Taliban and al Qaeda members from different countries are behind this unrest,'' he told Reuters. ''They still control the wing from where they had started the riot.'' Hashimzai said the prison housed more than 2,000 prisoners, about 350 of whom were Taliban or al Qaeda militants.
General Mahboub Amiri, chief of Kabul's Rapid Reaction Police Force, said Taliban members triggered the riot in an escape bid.
Hashimzai said the riot erupted after prison authorities began issuing blue uniforms to prisoners today.
The uniforms were intended to prevent a repeat of an escape by seven Taliban suspects from the prison last month who got out by mingling with visitors. Officials said they suspected the escapees were assisted by prison guards.
Pul-i-Charkhi is a large Soviet-style prison complex built in the 1970s. Thousands of Afghans who opposed communist rule were killed and tortured there in the 1980s.
Nowadays it is used to house common criminals as well as al Qaeda or Taliban-linked militants.
Last July, four al Qaeda suspects escaped from the main U S military prison in Afghanistan at Bagram to the north of Kabul.
They included Omar al-Faruq, al Qaeda's most senior operative in southeast Asia. He was captured in Indonesia in 2002 and turned over to the United States. He remains at large.
In 2003, 41 Taliban prisoners escaped from prison in the southern city of Kandahar through a 30-metre (yard) tunnel.