AMMAN - Islamist prisoners loyal to al Qaeda took a prison chief and six policemen hostage today during riots at three Jordanian jails to stop the transfer of inmates convicted for killing a US diplomat, officials said.
Islamist sources said the inmates released their hostages after receiving promises they would not be punished.
The head of Jweida prison, Colonel Saad Ajrami, was among those held hostage, deputy head of police Abdul Salam al-Ja'afra told state television.
Security sources said the violence at the Swaqa, Jweida and Qafqafa prisons began after security forces went into one of the jails to transfer two high-profile Islamist prisoners on death row for killing a US diplomat in Amman in 2002. The inmates feared the two were going to be executed.
The prison clashes, which involved 150 inmates, were the most serious in Jordan in recent years.
It was the first such co-ordinated rioting by prisoners of its kind in Jordan, which has been facing a growing Islamist tide by sympathisers loyal to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The three prisons are among eight jails holding more than 6000 common criminals and political prisoners, many of whom belong to al Qaeda and are sentenced for attacks against Israeli, American and other Western targets.
Security experts said the clashes underscored the Islamists' high-level of coordination and their ability to act together almost instantaneously.
Security sources said the inmates used smuggled mobile phones to organise the rioting between the three jails.
The sources said anti-riot police units had already been on alert at the three jails after prisoners threatened to riot if the two inmates at Swaqa -- Libyan Salem bin Suweid and Jordanian Yasser Freihat -- were taken for execution.
As soon as the paramilitary units moved into Swaqa, clashes erupted. Similar violence broke out at the two other jails almost simultaneously, an Islamist activist said.
Hundreds of anti-riot police moved into the cells, using tear gas and plastic bullets to quell the unrest at the jails which hold some of Jordan's most dangerous militants, including followers of al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Among the prisoners in Jweida are Azmi Jayousi, a Jordanian aide to Zarqawi, who was sentenced to death last month over his leading role in plotting chemical attacks in 2004.
Police spokesman Major Raed Deajah said the hostages were seized when they went unarmed into a cell to negotiate with the prisoners. They were held for about eight hours.
Suweid, speaking to Al-Jazeera television by telephone from inside the jail, said four inmates had been wounded in clashes in Swaqa. The security sources said eight inmates were injured in Qafqafa jail.
Islamists in contact with the inmates said the prisoners had initially demanded the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman who failed to blow herself up during an al Qaeda attack on Amman hotels last year. Rishawi is held in Jweida.
Authorities refused to release Rishawi but promised to address several demands by the prisoners, including to stop arbitrary transfers of inmates and ensure speedy trials of detainees held for months without formal charges.
Last year, top security detainees staged several strikes to protest against poor prison conditions and ill treatment. Jordan denies any systematic violations of prisoners rights.
Interior Minister Eid al-Fayez said security forces had opted for negotiations with the prisoners to prevent bloodshed.
"We dealt wisely with the affair to prevent any bloodletting as the security forces could have ended the rioting in minutes if it had used force but we opted for negotiations to spare bloodshed," Fayez told the state news agency Petra.
"Police were surprised to find out the prisoners were armed with wooden sticks and had metal rods that were pulled out from their beds inside the cells," he added.