200 inmates escape in Medan prison riot during blackout

Fire-fighters and police officers stand outside Tanjung Gusta prison, which was set ablaze by inmates after a riot broke out, in Medan in North Sumatra province July 11, 2013.

JAKARTA - A major riot broke out at a prison complex in Medan, North Sumatra, during a power blackout, and as many as 200 inmates escaped as they lit fires that engulfed parts of the complex for several hours.

Mr Akbar Hadi Prabowo, the chief spokesman for Indonesia's directorate-general of corrections, told The Straits Times shortly after 10pm on Thursday night (11pm Singapore time) that the fire had been put out.

Police have sealed off the area, but do not know the exact number of convicts on the loose.

The Tanjung Gusta penitentiary housed 2,600 inmates in all, more than double its capacity of 1,054, he added.

Overcrowding has fuelled unrest in Indonesian prisons in recent years, and officials acknowledged as much on Thursday.

Antara News Agency reported Deputy Law and Human Rights Minister Denny Indrayana as saying that such conditions had made inmates uneasy.

The inmates at Tanjung Gusta had complained about repeated electricity blackouts that led to a cut in their water supply on Thursday, Dr Denny said in a TV interview.

Mr Akbar explained that the water came from pipes as well as groundwater pumps, and the power outage cut off water. Officials had tried repairing a stalled generator but failed.

Most of the damage from the fires was near the wardens' office, and all 15 personnel on duty were safe, he added.

"We will recover quickly, carry out necessary repairs, then we will sit down and talk with the inmates to reach an understanding," Mr Akbar said.

The prison is located in a densely populated residential area, and residents living across the street told Elshinta radio station that the fire started around 6.30pm, after inmates were heard shouting that they needed water.

The narrow roads around the facility meant firefighters deployed to the scene in some 10 fire engines had a hard time trying to contain the fires, police said.

North Sumatra police chief Syarief Gunawan told reporters that police managed to recapture 10 inmates, one of whom was a convicted terrorist, near and around the prison.

National Police spokesman Boy Rafli Amar said as many as 15 inmates detained for terror offences could be among those on the run.

"We are sealing off the area around the prison and we want to make sure escaping inmates will not leave Medan," Inspector-General Syarief told MetroTV.