At least 1,300 prisoners escaped from a jail in the Democratic Republic of Congo early on Tuesday, the United Nations said, after an armed assault for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility.

A local official attributed the operation to an Islamist rebel group. But Amaq, the Islamic State’s official news outlet, said that ISIS fighters had attacked a Congolese prison, citing a military source.

The assault in Beni, in the country’s northeast, targeted the Kangbayi central prison and the military camp defending it, the city’s mayor, Modeste Bakwanamaha, told news agencies on Tuesday morning. The mayor said that just 100 of the prison’s inmates, who had numbered more than 1,400, remained, though 20 others later returned.

“Unfortunately, the attackers, who came in large numbers, managed to break the door with electrical equipment,” the mayor said to Reuters.

An estimated 1,335 prisoners escaped, and one inmate died in the confrontation, said Mathias Gillmann, a spokesman for a United Nations peacekeeping group in Congo, though local journalists, citing the police, reported that two inmates were fatally shot during the raid. According to the United Nations, the prison held 1,456 inmates.

Mr. Gillmann said that a patrol was sent to the scene as soon as the U.N. group was alerted and that the group’s presence in the Beni area had been reinforced.

Mr. Bakwanamaha said that the attack was the work of the Allied Democratic Forces, a rebel group from neighboring Uganda that has been active in eastern Congo for decades but has been linked to an Islamic State financial network in recent years.

About 20 of the escaped prisoners later returned and said they had been abducted by the Allied Democratic Forces, Mr. Bakwanamaha told The Associated Press, adding that they “did not want to live as enemies in the bush.”

Officials in Congo could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday morning, and there was no comment from the official Twitter page of President Félix Tshisekedi’s office. Mr. Tshisekedi took office last year after claiming victory in a presidential election that was widely considered to be illegitimate.

Mr. Bakwanamaha has asked the public to help capture the escapees by reporting suspicious people. The escape has angered local residents, who said it could lead to further violence. “It is a danger to the community of Beni,” one resident, Sadi Amundala, told The A.P. “We would like our government to improve the conditions of life in prisons and also strengthen the police and military presence to prevent future escapes.”

Congo is a vast country where the central government has limited reach, and Beni lies in an area that has long been troubled by violence.

The attack on Tuesday appears to mirror one from 2017, in which armed men stormed the Kangbayi prison and freed over 900 inmates. Local news reports at the time said that perpetrators of the attack had claimed to be Ugandan members of the Allied Democratic Forces.

Last year, the Islamic State’s news agency claimed what it said was the group’s first attack in Congo, saying its soldiers had assaulted a military barracks in the Beni area, killing eight people. Congolese officials confirmed an attack in the area, but said that the assailants were from the Allied Democratic Forces. A 2018 report by the Congo Research Group at New York University said the A.D.F. had received money from a financier linked to the Islamic State and that the group was “making a tentative attempt to align itself with other jihadist groups.”

The Allied Democratic Forces have been accused of killing hundreds of people. In 2016, a military court in Beni began conducting trials of the group’s fighters and their allies.

Lucha, a human rights group in Congo, said in a statement on Tuesday that the prison break had freed several high-profile criminals who had participated in previous armed attacks. It urged the local authorities to take swift action.

“They’ve got to take serious measures to recapture the fugitives,” the group’s statement said.

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

Orignially published in NYT.

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