Insurgents tunneled into the main jail in Afghanistan's volatile Kandahar Province early today, freeing hundreds of prisoners, including, it's believed, many Taliban commanders and foot soldiers.
The incident is considered a serious setback for international forces who claim to have made significant progress against the insurgency in its southern strongholds around Kandahar. Questions are also being raised about Afghan capability as Western troops begin a planned drawdown in coming months, handing security responsibilities over to the Afghans.
Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar Province, said the prisoners managed to escape due to the "negligence" of Afghan security forces. He said the start of the tunnel has been traced to a house near the Sarposa prison.
Waheed Omar, a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, said the prison break was "a blow" that he said showed "a great vulnerability in the Afghan government."
Hundreds of Taliban escaped from the same prison in 2008 when the Taliban broke into the prison by blowing up its gates with a truck bomb.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Gulam Dastageer Mayar, the director of prisons in Kandahar, says police are investigating the jailbreak.
"Most of the 467 prisoners who escaped were political prisoners," he says. "They had dug into [the prison] from some village, but it's not entirely clear how they did it. The police are investigating. At least eight of the escaped prisoners were rearrested this morning."
Sarposa prison, rebuilt after the 2008 jailbreak, is supposed to be one of Afghanistan's most secure. It sits on the outskirts of Kandahar city and holds both captured insurgents and criminal prisoners from across southern Afghanistan, where thousands of American troops have spearheaded the campaign against rural Taliban strongholds.
The Taliban, in its own statement, said 541 prisoners escaped through an extensive tunnel that took months to construct and were later moved in vehicles to safer locations.
The statement said that "mujahedin started digging a 320-meter tunnel to the prison from the south side, which was completed after a five-month period, bypassing enemy checkpoints and [the] Kandahar-Kabul main highway leading directly to the political prison."
The Taliban said the tunnel was completed late on April 24, with hundreds of insurgents escaping over a 4 1/2-hour period.
An escaped prisoner, who declined to be named, recounted their flight to Radio Free Afghanistan.
"We all escaped in a very organized manner," he said. "No one knew that we had escaped until morning, and by then we had reached our villages and homes. Many among us were seriously ill or injured. They were very harsh to us. The tunnel was 2 1/2-meters deep and we walked in it for nearly 360 meters. When I asked other escapees, they said they had all come out of the same tunnel and went to safe regions [where they won't be rearrested]."
The brazen jailbreak comes months before the start of a transfer of security responsibilities from foreign to Afghan forces in several areas as part of the eventual withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from the country. Under transition plans, Afghan forces will begin by taking over from foreign troops in a few areas but should have control of the whole country by the end of 2014.
Kandahar, the former capital of the Taliban regime, is not among the areas listed for the transition of forces in the first stage. Days after the 2008 jailbreak, the Taliban regrouped in districts close to Kandahar, threatening the second-largest city of the country. Their uprising was eventually subdued by Afghan and NATO troops after tough fighting that saw hundreds of Taliban killed.
written by Abubakar Siddique, based on material from RFE/RL correspondent Mohammad Sadiq Rishtinai in Kandahar, with additional agency reports