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Troops await orders after Afghan prison riot

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KABUL, Feb 27 (Reuters) Police and troops backed by armoured vehicles ringed Kabul's main jail today after hundreds of inmates led by Taliban and al Qaeda militants took over cell blocks in a weekend riot, officials said.

The riot erupted at the Pul-i-Charkhi prison late on Saturday and continued throughout yesterday after prisoners took two female guards captive in a row over attempts to implement a new rule requiring inmates to wear uniform, government officials said.

Sporadic bursts of gunfire were heard from the prison complex on Sunday and flames and smoke from burning bedding were seen from windows of two cell blocks on the prison, but details of casualties remained sketchy.

Officials said at least 30 prisoners were wounded in attempts to quell the riot at the weekend and a police officer said on Sunday that seven prisoners were killed, but his account could not be independently confirmed.

Hundreds of Afghan police and troops backed by tanks and armoured personnel carriers, have surrounded the prison and an army officer at the scene said they were awaiting orders.

''Until now now there has been no change,'' said the officer, who did not want to be identified. ''We have not had breakfast yet. Once we have, the commanders will decide what to do.'' Deputy Justice Minister Mohammad Qasim Hashimzai, tasked with quelling the riot, said the prison housed more than 2,000 prisoners, about 350 of whom were Taliban or al Qaeda militants, who he blamed for inciting the unrest.

QUIET NIGHT ''During the night it was quiet,'' he said. ''The buildings are still surrounded by the army and police.'' Hashimzai said all the militants in the jail had been tried and convicted, but said he did not know how senior they were in their organisations.

Yesterday, inmates who police said had makeshift weapons including clubs made from broken beds and chairs, set fire to bedding and chanted ''Long live the prisoners'' and ''Allahu Akbar'', or ''God is Greatest''.

General Ezmarai Khan, commander of the Afghan army's Quick Reaction Force, said at the scene yesterday that the prisoners had demanded to speak to Red Cross and human rights workers but then refused to talk to them.

''They aren't united,'' he said. ''Their demands keep changing.'' Khan said there was no danger of prisoners escaping as the jail was surrounded by three rings of police and troops. ''They can't do anything,'' he said of the prisoners.

Hashimzai said the riot erupted after authorities issued blue prison uniforms intended to prevent a repeat of an escape from the jail last month by seven Taliban inmates who mingled with visitors.

Officials suspect guards assisted the escape.

Pul-i-Charkhi is a large Soviet-style prison complex built in the 1970s and had been the scene of unrest in the past.

Thousands of Afghans who opposed communist rule were killed and tortured there in the 1980s. It now houses common criminals as well as Islamist militants and conditions remain poor.

In December 2004, four policemen and four inmates died in a day-long siege at the jail when militants attempted a breakout.

REUTERS CH RAI0937

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