BUKAVU, June 6- At least four people were killed when 301 inmates broke out of the main prison in Bukavu in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the provincial justice minister said Friday.
“The current toll is four people dead, two soldiers on guard duty and two inmates who were trying to escape” on Thursday, said Gisele Balegamire, minister of justice and human rights in South Kivu province, where Bukavu is the capital.
In all, 54 of the escaped detainees had been rounded up by Friday morning, but “three of them are badly wounded and in hospital for treatment”, Balegamire told AFP.
In an earlier toll given hours after the dawn breakout, police said two people had been killed and seven injured.
At first light Thursday, inmates overpowered warders on duty, “took weapons and managed to open the prison gate”, the policeman added. Residents living near the facility reported awakening to gunfire.
Descartes Mponge, president of the South Kivu Civil Society organisation, told AFP there were “at least 1,600 prisoners in this prison” at the time of the breakout.
Balegamire said that the jailbreak was believed to be connected to “the suspension of the former head of the prison … accused of several offences, particularly extorting payment for visits to inmates, opening the way for the torture of certain detainees by soldiers and the embezzlement of funds allocated to the prison.”
Staff of the justice division in South Kivu — a province that has known more than 20 years’ unrest and is rife with armed groups — helped the former prison governor to steal the funds, she added.
“Several secret meetings have been held … to avenge the suspended prison chief and to show that the new chief, who is experienced since he has already run the jail in Uvira, is incompetent. These people … cooperated with some detainees to organise the breakout,” Balegamire said.
The escaped prisoners included “those accused of trying to kill the famous Dr Denis Mukwege”, a pioneer in the treatment of women victims of gang-rape by armed bands, the police officer said.
Mukwege, a gynaeocologist, has won international renown for founding and running the Panzi hospital in Bukavu, which has treated thousands of women since 1999. Several times tipped for a Nobel Peace Prize, he escaped an assassination bid in October 2012.
A strong security contingent of troops and police deployed to watch the prison after the jailbreak was still present on Friday morning, an AFP journalist said.
Breakouts are a regular occurrence in the DRC, where greatly overcrowded prisons dating from Belgian colonial times more than half a century ago have been left to decay.
Prison inmates live in filthy conditions and are prey to disease, dehydration and malnutrition. Human rights activists have protested that detainees can die of starvation and lack of medical care, as well as torture.