AN official figure has been put to the Monday one-of-a-kind jailbreak in Owerri, Imo State, as police spoke of frightening preliminary findings.
Federal authorities at the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCoS) put the figure at 1,844, without details of the offences of the forcibly freed inmates. Before dawn on Monday, yet-to-be-identified gunmen stormed the correctional facility and reportedly used explosives to split it open, asking the inmates to breathe the air of premature freedom.
From Abuja, Public Relations Officer of the NCoS, Mr Francis Enobore, in a statement on Monday, said the attackers stormed the facility at about 0215hrs on Monday, gained entry into the yard by using explosives to blast the administrative block.
He noted that while six inmates had so far voluntarily returned to the facility, 35 inmates refused to escape from custody during the attack.
“They (attackers) were said to have arrived at the centre in their large number in several Hilux pick-up vans and Sienna buses, armed with sophisticated weapons and immediately engaged the security personnel on duty in a fierce gun battle. They eventually detonated the explosive to gain entry.
“The Acting Controller-General of Correctional Centre, John Mrabure, has ordered a comprehensive investigation into the incident and, in collaboration with other security organisations, commenced a search and recover operations to recapture the fleeing inmates.
“While appealing to the good citizens of Imo State and indeed Nigerians to volunteer useful intelligence that will facilitate the recovery effort, the Ag. Controller-General wishes to assure that the security of custodial centres in the country remains sacrosanct.”
The statement said the NCoS had equally directed all officers attached to custodial facilities to remain vigilant.
From London, United Kingdom, President Muhammadu Buhari fumed over the attack and has directed that those behind it should receive terrorists’ treatment from security operatives.
His spokesperson said the president condemned the insurgent attack, calling it an act of terrorism.
A statement issued from Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant to the President (Media and Publicity), said, in his reaction to the incident, President Buhari praised the initial response by security guards and security forces for preventing greater loss of life and the destruction of public property.
Garba said the president had directed security and intelligence agencies in the state and the geopolitical zone to fully mobilise and go after the terrorists, apprehend them and get them punished under the full weight of the law. He also called for efforts to re-arrest fleeing prison detainees, many of whom are believed to be deadly criminals.
Meanwhile, the leadership of the Nigeria Police has fingered members of two organisations as the brains behind the attack.
In a statement from Frank Mba, the Force Public Relations Officer (FPRO), the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, is said to have sent Tactical Squads to Imo State for comprehensive probe.
“Preliminary investigations have revealed that the attackers, who came in their numbers with sophisticated weapons such as General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMGs), Sub-Machine Guns (SMGs), AK-49 rifles, Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are members of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB)/Eastern Security Network (ESN).
“The attempt by the attackers to gain access to the police armoury at the headquarters was totally and appropriately resisted by police operatives on duty who repelled the attackers and prevented them from breaking-in and looting the armoury. The armoury is thus intact. Similarly, the police suffered no human casualty, apart from a police constable who sustained a minor bullet wound on his shoulder.
“Meanwhile, one of the operational vehicles of the attackers has been recovered by the police and is currently being subjected to forensic scrutiny and investigations.
“The IGP, who condemned the attack on the security outfits, has further directed the Commissioner of Police, Imo State command and a new Special Investigation Team (specifically set up to deal with cases of incessant attacks on security formation/operatives in the region), to carry out holistic investigations into the incident, with a view to fishing out the perpetrators and bringing them to justice,” the statement read.
IPOB, the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), however, repudiated the official claim of being behind the coordinated attacks.
Group’s Media and Publicity Secretary, Emma Powerful, said in a statement issued in Owerri on Monday that the group was formed on the principle of peace and would not compromise its principles or attack government’s facilities.
“The attention of IPOB has been drawn to the fallacious and fabricated reports that it is involved in the attack of prison and police headquarters in Imo.
“IPOB and Eastern Security Network (ESN) are known groups, not unknown gunmen. ESN is in the bush chasing terrorists and have no business with the said attacks. We were not involved in the attack in Owerri and the recent attack on Onitsha-Owerri road at Ukwuorji junction. “It is not our mandate to attack security personnel or prison facilities,’’ he stated.
News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) also reported that soldiers had been drafted to secure the Government House in Owerri. The troops already barricaded arterial roads to the facility.
Meanwhile, a visit to the Correctional Centre by Nigerian Tribune on Monday revealed that the only set of inmates remaining in the facility were those who had served appreciable numbers of years of their terms and the older ones that reportedly had no place to go.
Also seen littering the premises and outside of the facility were personal belongings of the inmates such as bags, books and clothes, an indication that the escaped inmates departed the centre in haste.
When contacted by newsmen, the state Public Relations Officer of the Service, Mr James Madugba, confirmed the jailbreak but added that details of those who escaped were still sketchy.
A source who craved anonymity hinted that the inmates were actually forced to leave the premises by the gunmen who were also alleged to have attacked the place to free some of their own held in custody. Nigerian Tribune also gathered that security had been beefed up at the state police headquarters, with stern-looking officers and men mounting surveillance and restricting human and vehicular movements around the attacked command.
It was also learnt that apart from razing the state police command headquarters, almost all the vehicles parked on the premises were also razed by the attackers. It was gathered that the gunmen sang solidarity songs at the Government House roundabout for about 30 minutes before attacking the facilities.
On breaking into the prison facility with the aid of explosives and dynamite, the attackers allegedly told the inmates, “Go home, Jesus has risen. You have no reason to be here.”
While the brickbats on who committed the act are still on between the Nigerian authorities and IPOB, leader of the group, Nnamdi Kanu, said no one deserved to be in prison in Nigeria if terror herdsmen walk freely on the nation’s streets.
In a tweet on his verified Twitter handle, he said: “If Miyetti Allah terror herdsmen and other murderous #Fulani groups, including Boko Haram insurgents can be arrested, freed and rehabilitated by this neo-colonial Fulanised @NGRPresident, then no single soul deserves to be in any prison in Nigeria.”