At least 19 prisoners have escaped from a maximum security prison in Sierra Leone – apparently leaving through the front gates during the day.

The prisoners fired a pistol to scare away the guards at Pademba Road prison in Freetown, officials told the BBC.

The escapees include murderers and armed robbers, and officials described them as “hard core”.

The country’s director of jails, Moses Showers, was sacked over the incident and several guards have been arrested.

Police have mounted a nationwide manhunt to track down the escapees.

The BBC’s Umaru Fofana in Freetown says it is not the first time the prison has experienced major security breaches.

He says the police are now calling for a public inquiry into the affairs of the prison, amid accusations that jail staff might have colluded with prisoners.

Before he was sacked, Mr Showers admitted that the prisoners were armed when they escaped.

“They fired a pistol to scare the gatekeepers and make good their escape,” he told the BBC’s Network Africa programme.

Mr Showers said he could not rule out the possibility that prison staff had colluded in the escape.

He said 19 prisoners had fled the jail, but eyewitnesses said they had counted 30 escapees.

Freetown police chief Chris Charley said he would be setting up roadblocks and conducting searches nationwide.

“They are indeed a danger to society… these are hard-core people, I’m not overemphasising this,” he told the BBC.

So far, investigators have arrested 18 people in connection with the jail break. They included several prison officers.

Rights groups say the Pademba Road prison has room for 350 inmates, but currently accommodates more than 1,000.

Source: BBC