Israel accused after 30 injured in prison battle

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A Palestinian prisoner was in a serious condition in hospital last night after pitched battles between prison officers and detainees at the remote Ketziot prison left at least 30 people injured.

The Israeli Prison Service said yesterday that staff used "non lethal devices" to quell what it said was widespread rioting by mainly Hamas prisoners after it began a search for contraband, weapons and mobile phones in the early hours of yesterday.

Palestinian officials responsible for prisoners' welfare said the guards – believed to be members of the prison service's Nahshon security force –used teargas and rubber bullets after prisoners reacted to what they said was an unusually timed search as they slept.

A prison service spokesman said around 1000 rioting inmates had hurled tins of food, pieces of metal, stones and "anything they could lay their hands on" at guards. He said the officers had been obliged to respond when their lives were endangered by the "major disturbance". The prison, in the Negev Desert, close to the Egyptian border, has been used in recent months to house Sudanese refugees fleeing over the border from Egypt into Israel, but only Palestinian prisoners were involved in yesterday's clashes.

The prison service spokesman said an internal investigation had been launched into the circumstances of the rioting, during which 15 prison staff were hurt. Of these 14 were treated "on site" and another hospitalised with "light wounds". Of the 15 injured prisoners, the spokesman said, 11 were treated at the prison while another four were hospitalised, one of them seriously injured.

But Issa Ahmad Qaraqi, rapporteur of the Palestinian Legislative Council's prisoners' committee, claimed the most seriously injured man – whom he named as Muhammed Asahqar, 26, from Tulkarem – was "clinically dead". He said that Mr Asahqar was a Fatah prisoner and that the inmates involved were affiliated with Fatah, Hamas and other factions.

He said the prison authorities had launched a "crazy and provocative campaign" and that while searches for contraband items were common in prison, these normally took place during the day when the prisoners were not sleeping. The inmates had raised the alarm by shouting "Allah Akbar" – God is great. Mr Qaraqi, added: "We strongly condemn this new crime against the Palestinian prisoners."

A Palestinian human rights organization quoted by the Maan news agency said prisoners telephoned it to report that a Nahshon unit had stormed the Palestinian sections – where prisoners are housed mainly in tents – armed with clubs, shields, sonic bombs and tear gas canisters.

The prisoners reportedly said the tents were set on fire by the tear gas canisters and sonic bombs, destroying prisoners' belongings. But the prison service spokesman insisted last night that the tents had been burned down by the inmates themselves.

The green-uniformed Nahshon unit is responsible for quelling disturbances and carrying out searches for contraband goods. The unit also provides daily armed escorts for hundreds of the prison service's 18,500 inmates – including Palestinian militants with "blood on their hands" and criminals regarded as highly dangerous – on their way to interrogations, hospital or other prisons to which they are being transferred.

It boasts that only once in its 33-year history has a prisoner escaped its officers. After that incident, in May 2002, the prisoner was recaptured in three days.