Patna, Dec. 18: Some 300 Maoist prisoners today seized control of a heavily fortified Bihar jail, turning a patch of land 4km from the heart of the state capital into a "liberated zone" for eight hours.
The rebellion underlined the Maoists' ability to disrupt high-security prisons two days after some 100 rebels had pulled off a lightning jailbreak in Chhattisgarh's Dantewada.
At the Beur Central Jail in Patna today, unarmed Maoist prisoners beat up the guards, vandalised the kitchen and gathered in the courtyard under a Buddha statue.
There they stayed from 7am till almost 3pm while the guards huddled near a boundary wall, leaving the entire premises with 2,000 other prisoners at the Maoists' mercy.
The unrest was quelled only after some 200 specially trained police jawans were brought in and used their batons to drive the prisoners back into the wards, jail sources said.
A handful of crude bombs were discovered along with 14 mobile phones in the cells, but the rebels clearly hadn't wanted to use weapons.
Officials said the prisoners could have broken out of the jail between 7am and 10am, when reinforcements arrived, but obviously hadn't planned an escape but only a rebellion.
The trigger for the revolt seemed to be Saturday's suicide by guerrilla leader Nagina Majhi in his Beur cell, which had prompted a jail hunger-strike. But intelligence agencies say the CPI (Maoist) also has a strategy to cause unrest at prisons across the country.
The prisoners today pounced on the guards during the 6.30am headcount and chased them out of the wards.
Next, they broke open the iron door of the cell of Ajay Kanu alias Raviji, the mastermind of the November 2005 jailbreak by nearly 400 Maoists in Bihar's Jehanabad. They also freed another Maoist leader.
Kanu, arrested in June and believed to have headed the "people's guerrilla army" in Bihar and Jharkhand, was clearly the man in charge, sources said.
A few dozen non-Maoist prisoners, egged on by the rebels, joined them in the courtyard. The rebels shouted demands for a probe into Majhi's death, Rs 25 lakh for his family and improved jail conditions. Some alleged "torture" by the authorities.
The government began talks around 10am, after inspector-general (prisons) Sandip Pondrik, district magistrate B. Rajendra and district police chief K. Krishnan arrived at the head of 500-odd Special Auxiliary Police and Special Task Force jawans.
But the prisoners stood firm, refusing to board the jail vans that were to take them to courts. Around 2.30pm, about 200 jawans were sent in. Pondrik denied the use of force.
Former state police chief R.R. Prasad said Majhi's death must be thoroughly probed. "Hardcore Naxalites do not commit suicide because of physical torture. Majhi must have been mentally tortured," he said.
Pondrik said the government had ordered an inquiry.