Police in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have launched a massive manhunt after a group of around 12 men, disguised as policemen and prisoners, broke into the high-security Nabha jail in Patiala on Sunday morning and freed six inmates, including Khalistan Liberation Force militant Harminder Singh Mintoo. By evening, police had traced two of the four vehicles suspected to have been used by the gunmen break into high-security Punjab jail, help Khalistan militant, five others escape group, arrested one of the jailbreak’s “facilitators” from Shamli in Uttar Pradesh and nabbed one of the inmates who escaped.
Police said that among the six inmates who escaped was Kashmir Singh, who was arrested for the attack on Shiv Sena’s Punjab secretary Harvinder Soni in April last year. The other four were identified as gangsters Vicky Gounder, Gurpreet Sekhon, Amandeep Dhotian and Kulpreet Singh aka Neeta Deol.
Kulpreet was arrested by Mohali police late on Sunday and is expected to be produced in a local court on Monday, said sources. “At this moment, we can confirm that we have arrested him,” said a police officer, who refused to disclose more details.
Police said there were no reports of any injuries in the Nabha jail during the firing, which lasted for less than ten minutes from around 9 am, and that those who escaped may have passed through Kaithal in neighbouring Haryana. They added that 25-30 empty shells were recovered from the jail premises.
In a related incident, a woman, who was part of an entertainment group travelling in a car, was killed when a police team in Samana, near the Haryana border in Patiala, opened fire at the vehicle which tried to breach a checkpost at around 11.30 am — a motorcyclist was injured in the firing.
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. He added that police returned fire but the response was “not effective”.
Punjab’s SAD-BJP government, meanwhile, suspended ADGP (Jails) M K Tiwari, and dismissed the Nabha jail superintendent and deputy superintendent. Eight jail officials have been detained for questioning and a case registered under various sections, including Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Arms Act, and on charges related to dereliction of duty and helping prisoners escape.
The state government has announced a reward of Rs 25 lakh for any information on the whereabouts of those who escaped. Mintoo is said to be linked to Pakistan’s ISI, and had been arrested in 2014 by Punjab Police from Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport on his return from Thailand. He faces charges in a number of cases, including the attack on Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in 2008.
The 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, at least eight persons in police uniforms reached the jail in four vehicles — a Toyota Fortuner, a Hyundai Verna, a Honda City and a Hyundai i20 — with two handcuffed men in civilian clothes to give the impression that they were bringing inmates back from a court hearing.
When asked to mark their entry in the register at the main gate, they snatched the rifles of personnel posted there and rushed towards the deori or the corridor in the area housing the barracks, said an officer.
”The policemen posted at the jail did not anticipate such a move from those dressed in uniform. The six inmates had reached the deori by then and attacked the policemen there. They escaped while the armed men started firing indiscriminately,” said the officer.
Videoclips from a camera installed in a shop near the jail showed the four cars speeding towards the Nabha-Channo road and rushing back on 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 500m 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.
Late Sunday, Palwinder Singh Pinda, said to be a member of the Vicky Gounder gang, was caught by UP Police on the Panipat-Kairana city road in Shamli while driving the Toyota Fortuner suspected to have been used in the jailbreak. Police also recovered arms and ammunition from the vehicle.
Pinda has been placed under arrest in the Kairana station, said police, adding that a team from Punjab was on its way to seek his custody.