Russian prisoner makes rare escape from Moscow jail

MOSCOW (AFP) - A Russian prisoner charged with double murder on Tuesday escaped from one of Moscow's most formidable jails by breaking a hole in his cell ceiling, climbing through a ventilation shaft and jumping to freedom, the prison service said.

In a rare breakout, reportedly only the fourth in two decades from Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina prison, Oleg Topalov "escaped by breaking into the ventilation shaft of his cell, which is in the ceiling," prison service spokesman Sergei Tsygankov told Channel One television.

"He then found himself on the roof of the two-storey cell block, which adjoins the main fence. He simply jumped from the roof onto the main fence, and from the fence he jumped out of the prison grounds."

It was unclear how Topalov managed to break a hole in the ceiling since cells are searched for banned objects. The only object he could have used was a spoon, a source in law enforcement told the Interfax news agency.

Life News website cited an unnamed witness as saying the prisoner let himself down using a rope from the prison's psychiatric ward into a neighbouring tram depot.

In an unusual move, the federal prison service released pictures of Topalov, 33, slim with dark curly hair, asking the public to call with any information on the fugitive, who comes from the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Moscow police also offered a "large reward" for his capture.

Topalov was charged with murdering two people and with illegal arms trafficking as part of an organised gang. He had been held on remand since October 2011 and his case was sent to court last month, the Investigative Committee said in a statement.

He now faces an extra four years in prison after being charged over the escape attempt, which was discovered at 5 am local time.

He had been categorised as someone prone to escape attempts and with psychological problems, Mr Tsygankov told RIA Novosti news agency.

Investigators opened a criminal probe into negligence after his escape, accusing prison staff of "dishonest or careless attitude to their work that was made use of by the prisoner Topalov."

Topalov was charged with gunning down a businessman and his driver in southern Russia in an apparent contract hit. He also worked for "Grandpa Hassan," a prominent mafia boss killed by a sniper in Moscow in January, Izvestia daily reported, citing unnamed sources.

Since 1995, three other prisoners have escaped from Matrosskaya Tishina, RIA Novosti reported.

In 1995, a criminal boss Alexander Solonik abseiled down from an exercise yard on the roof. He was never caught but was shot in Greece two years later.

In the most daring escape recently from a Russian prison, last year a prisoner arranged for a helicopter to lift him out of a penal colony in the northern Vologda region.

He was recaptured the same day.

Matrosskaya Tishina in north-eastern Moscow has operated since 1946. Its name means Sailors' Repose, the name of the street where it is located. Its official title is Pre-trial Detention Centre Number 1.

The prison has its own hospital which is where lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in 2009 after being transferred from the notorious Butyrka jail in a case that sparked international outrage.

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