Drug baron escapes after prison battle

PABLO ESCOBAR, the 42-year- old chief of Colombia's main drug cartel, escaped last night from his custom-built prison outside Medellin.

Colombia's President, Cesar Gaviria, confirmed Escobar had escaped, and offered 'to respect his life if he surrenders voluntarily'. Mr Gaviria made the offer during a televised speech when he also told the country what had happened after Escobar and his cohorts staged an uprising at Envigado jail, some eight miles south-east of Medellin.

Escobar and his men took hostage several senior officials when troops arrived late yesterday at the well-appointed Envigado prison - made specially for Escobar and his 14 henchmen - to transfer them to a military camp. Soldiers stormed the prison hours later and freed the four officials, leaving at least two people dead and several injured, according to unconfirmed news reports. Officials made no mention of casualties.

Escobar, his brother, Roberto, and 13 of their drug cartel cronies took refuge in a secret tunnel under the prison and refused to surrender to authorities. Security forces had regained control the prison last night and were exhaustively searching the building and the surrounding area for the fugitive Medellin cartel chief. Troops found five of the 15 inmates, but Escobar and nine others were still missing.

The authorities had intended to move Escobar and his lieutenants to a military establishment while security measures at Envigado were improved. The government said it had received persuasive reports that the drug lord was pursuing a murderous feud with other Medellin gangsters from his cell. Leading underworld figures had been kidnapped in the city and taken to the Envigado jail for interrogation by Escobar and his men. Others had been assassinated. The government, not surprisingly, suspected that some prison guards were involved in these activities.

Escobar refused to be transferred from Envigado, claiming there was no guarantee that he would not be sent abroad. A communique was issued on his behalf, calling for President Gaviria or a trusted mediator, Father Rafael Garcia Herreros, to travel to the prison and give him the necessary assurances. Immunity from extradition was one of the terms under which Escobar gave himself up and agreed to stand trial last year.

The Colombian cabinet sat throughout last night wrestling with the crisis, and President Gaviria cancelled a scheduled trip to Spain to attend today's summit of Iberian and Latin American leaders in Madrid.

Escobar gave himself up last June after Mr Gaviria's government offered him lenient treatment if he confessed to some drug trafficking offences. Under the previous administration, Colombia had been engulfed in a 'drug war', touched off by the assassination of a leading presidential candidate in August 1989.

The government of the then president, Virgilio Barco, swore to smash the drug cartels, but after hundreds died in the ensuing violence, including two more presidential contenders, Mr Gaviria's incoming administration decided to adopt a more conciliatory approach.

Along with the Ochoa brothers and Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, Escobar was one of the leading suppliers of cocaine to the US market in the 1980s. He was a local boy of lower middle-class origins, who distinguished himself both by his ruthlessness and by his flamboyant gestures to the poor of his home town, whom he endowed with sports stadiums and low-cost housing schemes.

He has still not been charged more than a year after his surrender, and he has never admitted his involvement in any of the murders that characterised his reign of terror in Medellin, when hundreds of policemen were shot down by young motorcycle gunmen known as sicarios. The level of violence in Medellin has not diminished in the past year.

(Photograph omitted)