A group of 12 Palestinian prisoners wanted by Israel claimed Friday that they have escaped from a prison in the West Bank city of Nablus.
The twelve militants, all members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, fled after masked wardens at the Jneid prison began to beat them with clubs following a fight that broke out among the detainees, the goup's leader Mahdi Abu Ghazaleh said by telephone.
The escaped prisoners were part of a group of militants who turned themselves in three months ago rather than be detained by Israel.
As part of a deal, the members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent group linked to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, were to serve time in return for an Israeli agreement to eventually take them off the wanted list. The group is responsible for killing more than 1,100 Israelis since 2001.
Abu Ghazaleh said that this time would be different. "We won't return," he said.
It was not immediately clear what specifically the men were wanted for, except for exchanges of fire with Israeli troops during raids on Nablus.
The Palestinian police refused to comment on the breakout.
Israel has cut back slightly on West Bank arrest raids in recent months, as part of a demand by Abbas in the peace talks. In an effort to strengthen Abbas-allied forces in his rivalry with the Islamic Hamas group, Israel allowed the deployment of hundreds of Palestinian police in Nablus in November.
Nablus, a city of 170,000, has long been considered a stronghold for gunmen launching attacks on Israel. The police deployment was considered a test case for attempts to have other Palestinian forces stationed around the West Bank.
Nablus is also a center of support for Hamas, whose takeover of the Gaza Strip in June last year raised questions about the ability of Abbas to control the West Bank, which remained under his control.
Zubeidi: Israel has not honored its commitment
Former Al-Aqsa leader Zakariya Zubeidi this week told Haaretz that Israel had not honored its commitment to pardon the militants who turned themselves in after the agreed-upon three-month period.
"They lied to us, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The PA promised us that after we spent three months in PA facilities and if we didn't get involved in actions, we would receive a pardon," Zubeidi said. "The three months ended and nothing happened," he added.
"They made a distinction between those who were really in the Al-Aqsa Brigades, whom they screwed, and groups that called themselves by that name, but in fact were working on behalf of the PA," Zubeidi said.