Iraq’s Abu Ghraib jail suffered a prison break on Monday, in which hundreds of convicted members of al Qaeda escaped during a planned assault to free them.

Suicide bombers approached the prison gates in vehicles stuffed with explosives Sunday evening, reported CNN. Once they blasted through the walls of the Baghdad compound, militants armed with guns, mortars and grenades began attacking guards. Others fought off backup arriving from the main road, while those wearing suicide vests charged on foot into the prison to aid the inmates’ escape.

During the assault, tens of policemen and militants were slain before military helicopters were able to help the prison regain order. Though the military intervention prevented a break of an even larger scale, at least 500 inmates had escaped. Fortunately, a simultaneous attempted prison break in Taji, Iraq did not result in any escapes, though a number of soldiers were killed in the process of foiling the attack.

Abu Ghraib and Taji had both been under the control of the U.S. military until December 2011, when Iraqi authorities were given back the command. In 2004, the U.S. military came under fire for the harsh treatment of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib depicted in leaked photographs.

In recent months, Sunni insurgents have gained strength and have been launching attacks with increased frequency against Shi’ite Muslims and security forces. Al-Qaida forces in Iraq launched a campaign last year that listed freeing their imprisoned members as a primary objective. So far in July, almost 600 people have been slain in militant attacks in the divided country.

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