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A U.K. soldier accused of terrorism escaped prison strapped under a truck

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A manhunt is underway across the United Kingdom tonight for a terror suspect whose cinematic prison escape has captivated the country. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from London.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It's like a scene straight out of the TV show "Prison Break."

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Inside these prison walls, they knew every obstacle they would face.

FRAYER: A former U.K. soldier accused of terrorism offenses managed to strap himself to the undercarriage of a food delivery truck as it rolled out of the gates of Wandsworth Prison in South London. Daniel Khalife worked in the prison's kitchen and was wearing a chef's uniform when he escaped Wednesday morning. One of his fellow inmates, Chris Jones, spoke to the BBC.

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CHRIS JONES: He knew that this case was going to make him famous. That's what he kept going on about. He said, oh, yeah, I'm going to be famous. And, well, he is now, ain't he?

FRAYER: Khalife is 21 - baby-faced in his mug shot. But he was accused of planting fake bombs at a U.K. military base and trying to access state secrets to possibly pass them to Iran. His trial was supposed to start in November. Police Chief Dominic Murphy says there's about a $25,000 reward for information leading to Khalife. He's telling the public to stay vigilant but calm...

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DOMINIC MURPHY: Whilst he presents a low risk, please don't approach Daniel Khalife.

FRAYER: ...And call police if he's spotted. Khalife is very resourceful, police say, and his jailbreak may have been an inside job.

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ALEX CHALK: No stone must be left unturned in getting to the bottom of what happened.

FRAYER: In Parliament, U.K. Justice Secretary Alex Chalk called for an independent investigation into any security lapses.

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CHALK: Who was on duty that morning, in what roles - ranging from the kitchen to the prison gate? What protocols were in place? Were they followed?

FRAYER: And why was a terror suspect kept in a medium-security prison? Wandsworth Prison is a stone complex built in the 19th century, with a big wooden door that looks like a drawbridge. This is not the first escape there.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The escape of the great train robber Ronnie Biggs has become part of British folklore.

FRAYER: In 1965, one of the U.K.'s most infamous criminals, train robber Ronnie Biggs, managed to scale the walls of Wandsworth. He fled by boat to Europe, got plastic surgery in Paris and spent 36 years as a fugitive on the run. Authorities fear Khalife may, too, try to flee the country. Police have been stopping and searching cars near the Port of Dover, one of the main boat crossings to Europe. There are extra checks on long security lines at U.K. airports, too. At a train station in Oxfordshire yesterday, police handcuffed a Khalife doppelganger, then realized it wasn't him and sent the man on his way with a first-class upgrade.

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FRAYER: And this morning, police helicopters hovered for hours over Richmond Park, southwest of London, reportedly using heat-seeking radar to search for a young fugitive hiding in the tall grass.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.