20 staff hurt in Maze riot

More than 20 prison staff were injured, three of them seriously, when rioting broke out among loyalist inmates at the high-security Maze prison outside Belfast yesterday.

Imprisoned members of the Ulster Volunteer Force started a number of fires and attacked prison officers who were moving in to search their cells. Last night, one officer was very seriously ill.

The incident came just before it was announced that the first troop withdrawal is to take place from Northern Ireland after last year's paramilitary ceasefires. Four hundred men are to be moved to Britain, though the Government stressed that they would be available to return at short notice if needed.

More than 12,000 regular troops will remain in Northern Ireland for the moment, though if the ceasefires hold further withdrawals are likely.

Last night, the Northern Ireland Office said prisoners at the Maze had been secured within their wings and staff had established control. It added that while a full assessment would not be made until today, considerable damage had been caused. No concessions were said to have been made to the rioters.

Last summer, the authorities introduced a liberal regime at the prison under which, reliable sources say, inmates enjoy a striking amount of freedom.

The cause of the riot was a move by officers to search wings occupied by Ulster Volunteer Force members. For some hours more than a dozen inmates were on the roof of prison premises. More than 50 staff were said to have gone off duty as a result of physical injury, smoke inhalation and stress.

The local chairman of the Prison Officers' Association, Finlay Spratt, launched a fierce attack on the authorities, sayingthe prison was being run by the paramilitary organisations. The POA had twice warned that prisoners had access to the roof.

Mr Spratt said: "We understand why they objected to being searched. They didn't want to lose a lot of contraband. We believe this place is full of drugs, weapons and they've even got mobile phones." He called for the resignation of the Northern Ireland security minister, Sir John Wheeler, accusing him of incompetence.

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