Manhunt is underway for U.K. terror suspect who escaped prison strapped under a truck
LONDON — It sounds like the script of a Hollywood movie.
A former soldier accused of terrorism offenses escaped early Wednesday from a London prison, apparently by strapping himself to the undercarriage of a food delivery truck exiting the facility's kitchen.
Daniel Abed Khalife, 21, had recently gotten a job in the prison kitchen. He was last seen there that morning, wearing a chef's uniform of red-and-white checkered pants, a white T-shirt and steel-toe boots.
A manhunt is underway amid concerns Khalife may try to flee the country. Ports and airports across the United Kingdom have beefed up screening, prompting chaos and longer security wait times. Traffic was halted Thursday on a major highway leading to the Port of Dover — a main boat crossing from England to France — as police searched cars. Long lines of trucks were backed up at the port.
The truck that Khalife fled on was actually stopped and searched by police near the prison, moments after an alarm went off for an unaccounted-for inmate — but it was too late. He was already gone.
"Strapping was found underneath the vehicle," Britain's justice secretary, Alex Chalk, told lawmakers Thursday.
Khalife escaped from the medium-security Wandsworth Prison, in south London. BidFood, the contractor that supplies food to the prison, told the BBC that its driver is cooperating with police.
Khalife had been awaiting trial for allegedly planting fake bombs at a military base where he'd been stationed in Staffordshire, England. He was also charged with gathering intelligence to possibly pass to foreign enemies — which U.K. media are reporting is Iran — in violation of Britain's Official Secrets Act.
He was arrested in January, and was immediately discharged from the British army. Khalife has denied all the charges against him. His trial was slated to start in November.
Authorities say danger to the general public is low, but are asking anyone who spots Khalife not to approach him and to call police instead.
Prison breaks are rare in the U.K. One of the most infamous was by Ronnie Biggs, one of the so-called Great Train Robbers, who escaped from the same facility as Khalife in 1965. The biggest prison escape in British history was in 1983, when 38 Irish Republican Army prisoners broke out of the maximum-security Maze prison in Northern Ireland.
Khalife's escape has prompted questions about why a terrorism suspect was held in a medium-security facility, rather than a maximum-security one. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's government says an independent investigation will happen "in due course."
"No stone must be left unturned in getting to the bottom of what happened," Chalk told lawmakers Thursday.
Opposition politicians have pinned blame on years of budget cuts under successive governments led by Sunak's Conservative Party, which have left the country's prison system overcrowded and short-staffed.
The former head of security at Wandsworth Prison told the BBC that Khalife's escape was "incredibly embarrassing" for the prison service.
"It simply beggars belief that a man being held on suspected terror charges was able to escape a prison by clinging to the bottom of a food delivery van," Shabana Mahmood, justice spokesperson for the main opposition Labour Party.
"How is such an escape even possible?" she asked.
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