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updated 9/2/2011 4:14:23 AM ET 2011-09-02T08:14:23

Thirty-five Iraqi terror suspects tunneled their way out of a prison on Thursday and most were quickly recaptured, officials said.

Abdul-Raheem al-Shimmary, the head of the security committee on the provincial council, said 21 of the detainees were recaptured soon after they escaped at dawn through a 50-meter (160-foot) tunnel that they dug from the prison in Iraq's northern Ninevah province. The city was locked down Thursday as security forces, with U.S. air support, searched for the remaining 14.

The detainees were being held at a Ministry of Interior facility on terrorism related charges. Al-Shimmary said they had links to al-Qaida. The U.S. commander in the region said the escapees were involved in such activities as planting roadside bombs.

Two Iraqi officials with knowledge of the investigation said the tunnel lead to a sewage pipe and then to the Tigris River. They said there were indications the prisoners had inside help, and that officials were looking into how the detainees were able to obtain digging tools.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The Ninevah province governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, told Al-Baghdadia television that there was "clear collusion" between the fleeing prisoners and the officials responsible for the prison.

Army Col. Brian Winski, the U.S. commander in the region, said during a Pentagon press conference via satellite that the U.S. helped tracked down a couple of the escapees by following them with aerial observation. He said a few may not be captured soon, but their identities and likely destinations were known, making it possible "to detain them when they surface, wherever that may be."

Winski said the escapees were members of a cell that planted roadside bombs, among other activities. He said none was a high-level leader.

Prison breaks are not uncommon in Iraq, casting doubt on whether Iraqi security forces are ready to protect the nation when U.S. troops leave.

Last month, two inmates and one guard were killed in a prison break in the central Iraqi city of Hilla. Earlier this year a dozen terror suspects disguised in police uniforms broke out of a temporary detention center in the southern port city of Basra.

___

Associated Press Writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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