A GROUP of armed men disguised as policemen broke into the high-security Nabha jail in Patiala on Sunday morning and freed six inmates, including Khalistan Liberation Force militant Harminder Singh Mintoo who was arrested in 2014 by Punjab Police from Indira Gandhi International Airport on his return from Thailand.
Police said that among the six was Kashmir Singh, who was arrested for the attack on Shiv Sena Punjab Secretary Harvinder Soni in April last year. The other four who escaped were identified as gangsters Vicky Gounder, Gurpreet Sekhon, Amandeep Dhotian and Kulpreet Neetu aka Neeta Deol.
Police said there were no reports of any injuries during the firing, which lasted for about seven minutes from around 9 am, and that those who escaped may have entered Kaithal in neighbouring Haryana, which has sounded a high alert.
In a related incident, a woman who was part of an entertainment group travelling in a Swift Dzire car was killed when a police team in Samana, near the Haryana border in Patiala, opened fire at the vehicle which tried to evade a checkpost at around 11.30 am — a motorcyclist was injured in the firing.
Police said one of the vehicles suspected to have been used in the jailbreak was later found abandoned in Kaithal. And, they said, one of the alleged “facilitators” of the attack, identified as Parminder Singh of Jalandhar, has been arrested in Shamli, Uttar Pradesh.
Within hours of the jailbreak, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh spoke to Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and sought a detailed report about the incident. Deputy Chief Sukhbir Singh Badal, who also holds the Home portfolio, linked the jailbreak to the “surgical strikes” along the LoC in September, and told reporters that Pakistan could be behind the jailbreak in a “bid to revive terrorism”.
Punjab DGP Suresh Arora said it was too early to say whether there was a Pakistan link but did not rule out the involvement of someone from inside the jail. Arora said police returned fire but the response was “not effective”. Apart from Haryana, an alert has also been sounded in Rajasthan and checkposts have been set up across Punjab, said police.
Later on Sunday, the Punjab government suspended ADGP (Jails) M K Tiwari, and dismissed the Nabha jail superintendent and deputy superintendent. It announced a reward of Rs 25 lakh for any information on the whereabouts of those who escaped. Mintoo faces charges in a number of cases, including the attack on Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in 2008.
Punjab’s SAD-BJP government has also set up a special investigation team headed by ADGP (internal vigilance cell) Prabodh Kumar and an inquiry committee headed by Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Jagpal Sandhu to probe the incident.
According to police, eight to six persons in police uniforms reached the jail in four vehicles — a Toyota Fortuner, a Hyundai Verna, a Honda City and a Hyundai i20 — and fired several rounds before escaping with the six inmates.
DIG (Patiala Range) A S Chahal said 25-30 empty shells were recovered from the jail premises. Chahal said one of the armed men was dressed in the uniform of a Sub-Inspector and the rest were wearing uniforms of the Constable-rank.
According to a police officer, the armed men reached the jail with two other handcuffed men in civilian clothes to give the impression that they were part of a police party that was bringing inmates back from a court hearing.
When asked to mark their entry in the register at the first gate at 8.56 am, they snatched the rifles of personnel posted there and rushed towards the deori or the area housing the barracks, said the officer.
”The policemen posted at the jail did not anticipate such a move from those dressed in uniform. The six who escaped had already reached the deori by then and attacked the warder to get the keys and come out. It was not clear whether they were able to open the lock with a key or had to break it. They escaped while the armed men started firing indiscriminately,” said the officer.
A videograb from a shop near the jail showed the four cars speeding towards the Nabha-Channo road and rushing back to the jail road that leads to Malerkotla, Bhawanigarh and the Delhi-Amritsar highway.
Eyewitnesses said the cars took the U-turn at a railway crossing nearly 500 metres away, which was shut. Local residents said they initially mistook the firing for firecrackers but became suspicious when they saw the speeding cars.
Spread across several acres, the Nabha jail houses dreaded criminals and is known for its tight security arrangements.
”The circumstances indicate that they may have entered Haryana. We have put all our districts on high-alert. We are also in close contact with Punjab Police teams,” said Anil Rao, IG (CID), Haryana.
The Hyundai Verna was later found abandoned in Solumajra village of Kaithal. “The vehicle’s registration number has been found to be fake, it was that of a scooter. Further investigations are on,” said Ramesh, Station House Officer, Dhand police station.
Mohammad Akil, ADGP (Law and Order), Haryana, said all the areas that border Punjab, including Kaithal, Jind and Kurukshetra, have been sealed. Gaurav Yadav, ADGP, Punjab, said several police teams have been sent to Kaithal and Kurukshetra to track those who escaped.