(Adds quote from former U.N. expert)
By Erikas Mwisi Kambale
BENI, Democratic Republic of Congo, Oct 20 (Reuters) - Armed men freed more than 1,300 prisoners from a jail in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in a coordinated attack on Tuesday, the town's mayor said, blaming an Islamist militant group operating in the area.
Only 110 of 1,456 inmates, including a number of militia fighters, remained following the simultaneous early morning assaults on the Kangbayi central prison in Beni and the military camp defending it, said Modeste Bakwanamaha.
"The attackers, who came in large numbers, managed to break the door with electrical equipment," Bakwanamaha told Reuters. "We believe it was the ADF who did this."
The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan armed group active in eastern Congo since the 1990s, has killed more than 1,000 civilians since the start of 2019, according to U.N. figures, despite repeated military campaigns aimed at destroying it.
Islamic State said fighters from its Central African Province franchise carried out the attack, according to its AMAQ news agency. The group has claimed responsibility for several suspected ADF attacks in the past.
But U.N. experts have consistently found that claims ADF is linked to international jihadists are overblown or false, said Dan Fahey, a former U.N. investigator.
Escapes are common from Congo's overcrowded and poorly secured prisons. A similar number of inmates escaped when the same jail was attacked in June 2017.
"This sounds more like an attack by Mai Mai (local rebels), who did the attack three years ago," Fahey said.
'MAY THE STATE HAVE MERCY'
Two inmates were shot dead during Tuesday's raid, which started at around 4:30 a.m., police said on Twitter.
The bolt on the prison's front door appeared to be cut, as well as the metal grate behind it, Reuters TV footage in the aftermath of the raid showed.
"We were sleeping in the morning, but around 4:00 we heard a really loud exchange of fire," said Lukiya Bafana Ruban, one of the few inmates who decided not to flee.
"May the state have mercy on us because we voluntarily stayed here in prison."
Kangbayi prison holds members of local rebel groups as well as ADF fighters. Bakwanamaha said there were rumours ADF fighters in the prison were preparing a break-out in the days preceding the attack.
By midday around 20 prisoners had returned to the prison, he added.
A year ago the army launched a large-scale counter-insurgency campaign against the ADF. In response, the group abandoned its bases, split into smaller, more mobile groups, and retaliated against civilians. (Reporting by Stanis Bujakera and Erikas Mwisi Kambale; Writing by Hereward Holland Editing by John Stonestreet and Giles Elgood)
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