At least 10 armed men dressed in police uniform have stormed a prison in northern India and freed a top Sikh militant commander and four other inmates.
H S Dhillon, the director general of police for law and order in the state of Punjab, said the attackers riding cars broke into the Nabha Jail in Patiala district after stabbing a guard at the main gate and firing rounds of ammunition before fleeing with the inmates.
The police official said security forces had launched a massive manhunt to track down the fugitives. "We have sounded an alert in the state and formed special teams to nab them."
Another senior police officer, whose name was not mentioned in the news reports, said the swift assault took guards by surprise as the attackers moved quickly through the complex. "We are trying to figure out the connection between the gangsters and the militant leader. Did he flee by fluke?"
Four officials in charge, including the Punjab prison chief and the jail superintendent, have either been suspended or sacked due to the jailbreak. A reward of 2.5 million rupees ($36,000) has been offered for information on the prisoners on the run.
Indian law enforcement agencies have identified one of the fugitives as Harminder Singh Mintoo, the chief of the Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF), a militant group fighting for a separate Sikh homeland in Punjab.
The 47-year-old Mintoo, who was arrested in Delhi airport in November 2014, is on trial for involvement in "terror attacks" as well as "funding" acts of that nature. Others are well-known figures mostly involved in running criminal gangs.
In the 1970s, several Sikh groups launched an armed campaign for an independent Sikh country in Punjab. The campaign reached its peak following the 1984 storming of the holiest shrine in Sikhism, Amritsar's Golden Temple, by Indian soldiers to flush out armed militants.
The storming of the temple prompted thousands of Sikhs to take up arms in revenge. Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh guards as a result.
Over 20,000 people, mostly civilians, died in Punjab in the late 90s.