Kandahar, Apr 25: Almost 500 Taliban fighters and commanders escaped from a prison in an audacious jailbreak in southern Afghanistan which the government admitted today was a security “disaster”.
The Taliban said it sprung the inmates out of the prison in Kandahar through a one-kilometre tunnel that took five months to dig, and claimed all those who escaped belonged to the militia, including over 100 commanders.
The daring breakout in the Taliban's heartland, the second from the prison in three years, threatens to undermine recent gains claimed by NATO forces in the area after a US-led troop surge, just as the annual fighting season begins.
It is also a major embarrassment for Afghan forces who are due to take on greater responsibility for security in their country ahead of the planned withdrawal of foreign combat troops in 2014.
Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar, said that 488 people had escaped, the vast majority of whom were thought to be Taliban.
He added at a press conference that intelligence cells and security forces at the prison had “failed in their duties” in not detecting the tunnel, which he later said was a kilometre long.
A total of 26 inmates have now been recaptured and two others were shot dead after resisting arrest by security forces near Kandahar city, Wesa added. The escapees, who represent over a third of the prison's total population, came from its political section. Kandahar prison is the largest in southern Afghanistan and holds Taliban captured on nearby battlefields, which are among the country's bloodiest.
An AFP reporter who visited Kandahar prison after the jailbreak said journalists were shown a hole in a cell about half a metre wide and three metres deep which officials said was the mouth of the tunnel.
Clothes and personal belongings were scattered nearby, apparently abandoned by inmates before they made their escape. Confirming the breakout, President Hamid Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omer described it as a “disaster”. “This is a blow, it's something that should not have happened,” he said.
“We're looking into finding out what exactly happened and what's being done to compensate for the disaster that happened in Kandahar.”
Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi said the Islamist militants were responsible for the mass breakout, which took place over several hours.
A separate Taliban statement said they had started digging the tunnel from a nearby safe house five months ago and that it passed under several government checkpoints and a major highway. AFP