US foils Iraqi bid for 'Great Escape' through 600ft tunnel

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An audacious bid by Iraqi prisoners to mount a mass breakout from the country's main detention centre has been thwarted after US military police found two escape tunnels.

An audacious bid by Iraqi prisoners to mount a mass breakout from the country's main detention centre has been thwarted after US military police found two escape tunnels.

Using a bucket cut from a water container and a shovel made of tent material, prisoners had dug a 600ft route out of Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. But the plot was foiled just before they could make a break for freedom on Friday.

Iraq's answer to the Great Escape ended when guards noticed mounds of mud in the toilets. Detainees had been trying to flush away the dirt dug out of the tunnels but the pipes became blocked.

A search revealed an escape shaft leading out of the camp from under one of the camp's eight compounds. The tunnel was 12 to 15 feet deep and as wide as three feet and had reached beyond the main security fence. A smaller, 300ft route was also discovered.

The prisoners covered the entry to the main tunnel with a false floor made from the wooden slats of their beds and a two-foot layer of dirt.

More than 6,000 suspected Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters are held in Camp Bucca, near the southern town of Umm Qasr. The facility is twice as large as the notorious Abu Ghraib in Baghdad and holds nearly two-thirds of all the detainees in Iraq.

"We were very close to a very bad thing," said Major General William Brandenburg, US commander of detainee operations in Iraq. He added that the prisoners were probably waiting for the dense fog that often rolls in from the Persian Gulf to fall before making their move. "There was a good chance they would have got out of the camp."

US army spokeswoman Major Flora Lee said the scheme was the most extensive effort at a mass escape they had encountered. "There have been a few other attempts at digging a tunnel but nothing of this size."

The lengths to which the inmates had gone suggested the plan was to spring more than 100 prisoners, said Colonel James Brown, the commander of the unit in charge of the camp. He added that his men now expected to find more tunnels elsewhere in the base.

Col Brown said that he had made his troops watch the 1963 movie The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, which tells a story of Allied airmen attempting to break out of a German prison camp during the Second World War. "It's a great movie," he said. "The trouble is we tend to view life through a lens of who we are and not who somebody else is. There are a lot of good lessons for us there."

Just hours after the escape routes were discovered, the camp was visited by General George Casey, the commander of the multinational force in Iraq. He inspected the premises and presented a medal to the soldier who found the larger tunnel.

Elsewhere in Iraq yesterday, a car bomb struck a US military patrol in Baghdad, killing two American soldiers. South of the capital, Iraqi troops backed by US forces detained 121 suspected insurgents and uncovered a big weapons cache during a joint raid.

An Iraqi official said the operation at the town of Musayyib turned up hundreds of Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, as well as car bombs, machine guns, rockets, mortar rounds and other munitions.

It was also announced yesterday that a US marine was killed on Friday during a "security and stability" operation in strife-torn Anbar province, a heavily Sunni Arab region west of Baghdad that contains the flashpoint cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.

In all, 1,524 members of the US military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003.

The man expected to become Iraq's next prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said the country's new coalition government could be launched this week. "God willing, the government could witness its birth in the coming few days," said Mr al-Jaafari, a leading member of the Shia alliance that won the most parliamentary seats in Iraq's 30 January election.

Attempts to convene meetings of the new legislators have been delayed by negotiations between the various groups attempting to set up a coalition administration.