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Taiwan prison inmates commit suicide after failed escape attempt

The six inmates started their escape attempt Wednesday afternoon from a prison in the southern Taiwanese port city of Kaohsiung.

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Police in riot gear gather outside of a prison as prisoners hold prison staff hostage inside in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. Six inmates took prison staff including the warden hostage, seized guns and ammunition, and demanded safe exit from a prison in southern Taiwan on Wednesday, authorities said.

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Six inmates led by a mob boss committed suicide at a prison in Taiwan early Thursday after a failed breakout attempt in which they seized weapons and held a warden and guards hostage, officials said. All the hostages were safe.

The inmates started their attempt Wednesday afternoon in the southern port city of Kaohsiung. In a telephone interview with a newspaper during the overnight standoff, the 46-year-old ringleader said the six had long planned the move and were prepared to die. He also complained about long sentences and unfairness in the granting of medical paroles.

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Deputy Justice Minister Chen Ming-tang said officials rejected the group's demands for safe passage out of the prison and had tried to convince them to surrender peacefully during hours of negotiations.

"We tried to give them assurances so they wouldn't do something stupid and to reconsider, but sadly they committed suicide and we feel deep regret," Chen told a news conference in Taipei.

Chen said five prison staff were slightly injured in the standoff, but did not elaborate.

By the pre-dawn hours, the inmates had released all hostages except the warden. They then shot themselves, and the warden was able to walk free, Chen said.

The ministry did not offer any video or other evidence of the suicides, but there was no sign during the standoff of a raid by police who ringed the Kaohsiung Prison in scenes that were broadcast by Taiwan stations.

Chen said four of the inmates shot themselves first and that the remaining two had fired additional shots at them to make sure they were dead before shooting themselves, at about 5:30 a.m. Thursday.

The inmates ranged in age from 37 to 63 and were serving sentences for homicide, burglary and drug crimes.

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The ringleader, Cheng Li-te, was known as head of the Kaohsiung branch of the notorious mafia-type organization Bamboo Union and was serving a 28 ½-year sentence for homicide, the ministry said. The other five inmates were serving sentences ranging from 25 years to life.

According to a timeline given by the Justice Ministry, the incident began at about 3:10 p.m. Wednesday when the six attacked staff at the prison infirmary and stole a prison skeleton key in an attempt to escape.

After finding they were unable to open the prison's outer door, they attacked other staff with knives and broke into the prison armory where they stole four rifles, six handguns and ammunition.

By about 4:15, negotiations were underway over their demands and the release of prison guards taken hostage as police took up positions around the prison.

The inmates demanded safe passage from the prison while holding Warden Chen Shih-chih and head guard Wang Shih-tsang after the pair offered to swap themselves for earlier hostages.

At one point, Cheng's mother spoke to him by phone, urging him not to act rashly. The group also demanded and received two bottles of sorghum liquor, but continued to refuse to hand over their weapons.

The United Daily News said that in the phone call with Cheng he also had complained about the tendency of judges to presume guilt, and to give long sentences to repeat offenders.

Chen said the inmates fired guns at about midnight to try to shoot down drone cameras deployed by media outlets and again at about 3 a.m. to warn off police.

The ministry said it had rejected demands that the police force be withdrawn and that two vehicles be provided to allow the prisoners to leave in exchange for the safety of the detainees.

The inmates used the need for medical care as a pretense to lure prison guards before kidnapping them, the official Central News Agency said.

The ministry said Deputy Warden Lai Chen-jung and head guard Wang volunteered to swap with the two guards who were initially taken hostage. Later, Chen, the prison warden, offered to exchange with Lai as a hostage.