Bhopal: Police on Monday shot dead eight undertrial activists of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) in an alleged gunbattle, hours after they escaped from a high-security jail in Bhopal.
Opposition parties, including the Congress, questioned the government's claim, hinting that the shootout may have been staged.
Police said the members of the banned Islamist outfit allegedly killed a police head constable with a sharpened spoon, took another guard hostage, broke the gates of their cell, scaled high walls using ropes made out of bed spreads and escaped out of the Bhopal Central Jail early in the morning.
A high alert was immediately sounded through out the state. Police also sealed all state borders as a manhunt was launched to nab the escapees, Home Minister Bhoopendra Singh told IANS.
Four of the inmates were accused of being involved in dacoity, loot and treason. They had earlier escaped from Khandwa Jail and were later arrested from Odisha.
After an eight-hour search, police said, the terrorists were cornered in a village, Achapura, about 30 km north of Bhopal.
Bhopal police chief Yogesh Chaudhary said villagers informed them about the presence of some suspicious men washing their faces in a pond.
Chaudhary said police surrounded the men and asked them to surrender. "They fired at us and all eight were killed in the crossfire." It was not immediately clear how the escapees acquired firearms.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan lauded the police for gunning down the inmates but expressed concern over their jailbreak which he said was an incident of "criminal negligence".
"These terrorists were not only a threat to the state but also to the entire nation. They were probably plotting a terror attack," Chouhan said.
The Chief Minister said the National Investigation Agency (NIA) would probe the jailbreak incident. "I have already spoken to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and he has agreed to order an NIA probe."
He said five jail officials have been suspended and the Additional DIG (Jails) shifted to police headquarters.
However, details of the operation remained shrouded in mystery with opposition parties suspecting that it may have been staged.
A video of the alleged gun fight also appeared on social networking sites which was telecast by national news channels.
The short clip, whose authenticity could not be verified independently, shows a policeman shooting at a group of men lying still in a deserted strip.
The men, wearing jeans and sports shoes, were said to be the escaped SIMI activists. It also shows a policeman pulling out a knife from one of the dead men.
Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari told IANS that the "facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged jailbreak raise questions".
Tewari pointed to the video and said perhaps the encounter was not what the police was making it out to be.
"It appears to be a fake encounter. Therefore this entire matter should be probed by a sitting Supreme Court judge for the truth to emerge."
AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi also sought an inquiry by a Supreme Court judge and termed the entire incident "very surprising" and "shocking".
"People who escaped from prison after killing a guard only had spoons. To any normal person, this theory is unbelievable and that is why I am of the opinion a proper and independent investigation has to be done."
CPI-M politburo member Brinda Karat also questioned the "highly dubious and suspicious and full of self-contradictory statements" of the government. "To get to the truth it is essential to have an independent probe under a high court judge," she said.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also demanded a Supreme Court monitored probe.
The dead SIMI men were identfied as Abdul Majid, Mehboob Guddu, Zakir Hussain, Amjad Khan, Mohammed Aqeel, Mohammed Khalid, Mohammed Saliq and Mujeed Sheikh.