After spending months digging a tunnel under Kandahar’s main prison, the Taliban on Monday morning freed more than 450 prisoners from jail, in the latest major security breach at the troubled facility, according to Afghan officials and insurgent statements.
In celebrating the escape, a Taliban spokesman said more than 100 insurgent commanders were among those who slipped out of the Sarposa prison’s political wing into the pre-dawn darkness. Zabiullah Mujahid said in a message to the media that the plan was carried out after five months of careful preparation.
“We were trying to not leave anyone behind, not even one sick or old political prisoner,” Mr Mujahid said.
The prison break was a blow to Afghan and American efforts to secure and modernise the Sarposa prison, which stands adjacent to a new US-funded “rule of law” centre to process prosecutions.
“This clearly shows the weakness of the government and the security forces, and if this doesn’t change, the prison breaks will happen again and again,” said Agha Lalai Dastageri, a provincial councilman in Kandahar.
It was not the first major jail break at Sarposa. In June 2008, the Taliban attacked the jail, killing several guards and freeing about 1,000 prisoners. That attack prompted efforts to make the jail more secure. US soldiers contributed to the efforts.
Kandahar’s governor, Toryalai Wesa, told reporters that all the prisoners had been entered into a biometric database that would help identify them in the future if they are detained again. During recent visits by The Washington Post to the prison complex, however, US military officials said they had not yet completed the biometric registry of all prisoners.
One man who claimed to have escaped the prison Monday said the inmates had already acquired copies of cell keys and quietly opened door after door to usher the prisoners in small groups to the tunnel, according to The Associated Press.
Afghan government officials and the Taliban gave conflicting accounts of the prison break.
A Taliban statement said the insurgents dug a tunnel 320 meters (1,050 feet) to the prison from a house on its southern side, carrying out the work over a five-month period and completing it late Sunday. The Taliban said 541 prisoners escaped through the tunnel over period of 4 1/2 hours and were later moved by vehicle to safer locations.
Mr Wesa, the provincial governor, told reporters the tunnel was one kilometre long (3,280 feet), and the prison warden, General Ghulam Dastagir Mayar, said it ran 1,200 meters (3,937 feet). Mr Wesa said 478 prisoners escaped and that police later recaptured 24 of them and fatally shot two others who resisted. A justice ministry spokesman said only eight of the escapees were caught.
The Taliban this month have penetrated some of Afghanistan’s most aggressively defended facilities. Suicide bombers killed Kandahar’s police chief inside his headquarters, detonated explosives on a crowded Afghan army base in Laghman province and shot up the hallways of the Ministry of Defence in Kabul. The security breaches have raised concerns about the Afghan government’s ability to protect itself from insurgents as US and Nato forces begin to withdraw.
The tunnellers in Kandahar reached the surface inside the “political wing” of the prison and ushered out the detainees before dawn. Gen Mayar said security guards were not asleep but blamed the breach on an undermanned staff. “We cannot put security guards in every room,” he said.
A second branch of the tunnel went to another part of the prison, but Afghan authorities discovered it and were able to prevent an exodus from that section, Mr Wesa told a news conference. When authorities followed the tunnel, they arrived at a house where they found explosives, an Afghan army commander added.
Under Gen Mayar, the prison warden, authorities have sought to find contraband such as cellphones that insurgents have used to plan attacks in the past. Afghan officials said they did not know whether the prisoners had been able to co-ordinate the escape with those outside, or if any prison guards were complicit.
According to the purported escapee quoted by AP, “four or five” of the prisoners knew about the tunnel project. Once the Taliban workers punched through the surface, he said, the accomplices inside woke up the other jailed insurgents four or five at a time to sneak them out quietly.
By agreement with the Washington Post. Additional reporting by agencies