updated 12/16/2007 8:51:37 AM ET 2007-12-16T13:51:37

Nearly 300 communist prisoners escaped in a daring jailbreak amid a hail of gunfire Sunday in restive eastern India, police said.

Rahul Sharma, the superintendent of police, said 299 of 377 inmates fled from the Dantewada prison, nearly 350 miles south of Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh state. The jailbreak occurred while dinner was being served.

"The inmates overpowered the prison guards and fled amid gunfire," Sharma told the New Delhi Television news channel.

Sharma said three prison guards and two inmates were wounded in the shooting. He described those who escaped as "supporters" of the leftist insurgents.

Police reinforcements reached the Dantewada region and were searching for the escapees, but the hunt would be difficult because of darkness, he said.

Eastern India is a stronghold of the communist rebels, who have been fighting for more than two decades demanding land and jobs for agricultural laborers and the poor.

Thousands of people have been killed in the insurgency.

The guerrillas, who claim to be inspired by Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong, have often targeted police and government officials, whom they accuse of colluding with landlords and rich farmers to exploit the poor.

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