WELLINGTON, New Zealand - It was a scene from a classic prison break: an old stone jail tower, a dangling rope of knotted sheets revealed as dawn broke - and an empty cell.

A guard raised the alarm today when he came to work and noticed the sheets hanging outside the Mount Eden prison in New Zealand's largest city, Auckland, corrections officials said.

By then Aaron Forden, who was to be tried soon on burglary and assault charges, was gone.

Forden, 26, apparently climbed down the tower of the prison - built in 1856 and officially listed as a historic site - within clear view of a guards' watch tower but under cover of darkness.

Corrections Department regional manager Warren Cummins says the bed sheets were "tied together and he's used them to get away."

Police were hunting for Forden.