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Israeli security forces stand next to two Palestinian fugitives Zakaria Zubeidi, left, and Mohammed Ardah after being recaptured in the Arab town of Umm Al Ghanam, northern Israel. Image Credit: AP

RAMALLAH: Palestinian prisoners who broke out of a high-security Israeli jail this month began digging their escape tunnel in December, lawyers for two of the arrested escapees said on Wednesday.

Six inmates staged a dramatic escape from Gilboa jail in northern Israel on September 6 after digging a tunnel under a sink in their cell and making their way to freedom.

Israeli security forces launched a large-scale manhunt for the escapees in Israel and the occupied West Bank, and have since recaptured four of them.

Lawyers for two of those arrested, Mahmoud Abdullah Ardah and Yaqub Qadri, on Wednesday revealed details of their escape.

“Mahmoud told me he started digging (the tunnel) in December,” his lawyer Roslan Mahajana told AFP after visiting him in detention.

Ardah claimed to be the architect of the escape, saying he used spoons, plates and even the handle of a kettle to dig the tunnel from his jail cell.

“They started questioning him after his arrest because they believe he was the one who planned and implemented the operation,” said the lawyer.

Qadri’s lawyer gave a similar account of their escape.

“Mr Qadri told me that this process started on December 14 and that this is what he told the Israeli investigators,” Hanane Khatib said, without elaborating.

In an interview with Palestinian television, the lawyer said that her client “was very happy despite his arrest because he was able to wander around for five days” until his arrest.

The lawyer said the inmates had not planned to escape on September 6, but they rushed ahead with it on that day because they feared guards had become suspicious and noticed changes in their cell.

Lawyers also said their clients were badly beaten during their arrest, with the most well-known of the prisoners suffering a broken jaw and two broken ribs while in handcuffs.

A veteran Israeli human rights lawyer representing Zakaria Zubeidi, a well-known militant accused of deadly attacks during the 2000-2005 uprising against Israel, said the security personnel who arrested him handcuffed him and then asked his name.

“He said Zakaria, and then he was beaten very badly,’’ Avigdor Feldman told The Associated Press. He said Zubeidi was taken to a hospital where he was given painkillers for the fractures in his jaw and two ribs. Feldman said there were no further abuses during days of interrogation.

Lawyers said the escapees did not seek help from local Arab residents to avoid getting them into trouble with authorities and were not given any outside assistance. Instead, they kept to rural areas and tried to live off the land, eating wild fruit and waiting for things to settle down.

“They didn’t have any intention to commit any kind of terrorist attack,’’ Feldman said.

The six prisoners went to a mosque in a nearby village after the escape and then split into three groups, the lawyer, Raslan Mahajneh told Palestine TV. He said they tried to enter the West Bank but were unable to because of the heavy Israeli security presence along the frontier.

He said his client was being interrogated for up to eight hours a day but was not tortured or deprived of sleep.

Ardah and Zubeidi grew exhausted after they were unable to find water, leading to their arrest, lawyer said. The two were found hiding in a truck parking lot in the Arab town of Umm Al Ghanam. The other two were arrested hours earlier in the nearby Arab city of Nazareth.

Israeli media have reported that local residents tipped off police, leading to the capture of the four prisoners. But the lawyers for the Ardah disputed that, saying security forces stumbled on them by chance. The Aradahs are cousins. It was not clear if their lawyers are also related.