Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Iraq have claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks on two prisons in Iraq on Monday that allowed hundreds of prisoners to escape.
According to agency reports, the coordinated assaults on both the Taji and Abu Ghraib prisons involved multiple car bombs, were planned months in advanced, and were carried out by gunmen from outside with help, reportedly, from a number of guards on the inside.
The Ministry of Justice said 260 prisoners escaped from Abu Ghraib, on the western outskirts of Baghdad. Officials said yesterday 500 had originally been freed but security forces managed to recapture about 150 of them.
A manhunt is still under way for tens of inmates, including high-ranking al-Qaeda members, most of whom received death sentences.
Al Jazeera's Jane Arraf, reporting from Baghdad, said that this was the most serious challenge from al-Qaeda the government has faced in years.
"This is a group they thought they had dismantled," our correspondent said.
The attacks on the prisons came a year after al-Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate announced it would target the justice system.
Sunni Islamist militants have in recent months been regaining momentum in their insurgency against Iraq's Shi'ite-led government, which came to power after the U.S. invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
"In response to the call of the mujahid (holy warrior) Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to seal the blessed plan of "Breaking the Walls"... the mujahideen brigades set off after months of preparation and planning to target two of the biggest prisons of the Safavid government," read the statement.
Safavid is a reference to the dynasty that ruled Iran from the 16th to 18th centuries and is used by hardline Sunnis as a derogatory term for Shi'ite Muslims.