Sarposa prison was also attacked by the Taliban in 2008, with 1,000 inmates freed
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) -- Taliban militants tunneled at least 480 inmates out of the main prison in southern Afghanistan overnight, whisking them through a 1,000-foot-long underground passage they had dug over months, officials and insurgents said Monday.
Officials at Sarposa prison in the city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, say they only discovered the breach at about 4 a.m., a half hour after the Taliban said they had gotten all the prisoners out.
The militants began digging the tunnel about five months ago from a house within shooting distance of the prison guard towers. It was not immediately clear whether they lived in the house while they dug. They meticulously plotted the tunnel's course around police checkpoints and major roads, the insurgent group said in a statement.
The diggers finally broke through to the prison cells around 11 p.m. Sunday night, and a handful of inmates who knew of the plan unlocked cells and ushered hundreds of inmates to freedom without a shot being fired.
A man who claimed he helped organize those inside the prison told The Associated Press in a phone call that he and his accomplices obtained copies of the keys for the cells ahead of time from "friends." He did not say who those friends were, but his comments suggested possible collusion by prison guards.
"There were four or five of us who knew that our friends were digging a tunnel from the outside," said Mohammad Abdullah, who said he had been in Sarposa prison for two years after being captured in nearby Zhari district with a stockpile of weapons. "Some of our friends helped us by providing copies of the keys. When the time came at night, we managed to open the doors for friends who were in other rooms."
He said they woke the inmates up four or five at a time to sneak them out quietly. The AP reached Abdullah on a phone number supplied by a Taliban spokesman. His account could not immediately be verified.
Kandahar holds particular importance for the Taliban, which seized the city in 1994 as it began its campaign to take over Afghanistan toward the end of the country's brutal civil war. The Taliban held onto its stronghold city long after U.S. and NATO forces drove the insurgents from power in the country, and a recent wave of assassinations shows they still have strength there.
The Taliban statement said it took four and a half hours for all the prisoners to clear the tunnel, with the final inmates emerging into the house at 3:30 a.m. They then used a number of vehicles to shuttle the escaped convicts to secure locations.
Government officials corroborated parts of the Taliban account. They confirmed the tunnel was dug from the nearby house and the prisoners had somehow gotten out of their locked cells and disappeared into the warm Kandahar night.
Police showed reporters the roughly hewn hole that punched through the cement floor of the prison cell. The opening was about 3 feet (1 meter) in diameter, and the tunnel dropped straight down for about 5 feet (1.5 meters) and then turned in the direction of the house where it originated.
Reporters were not allowed into that building but officials pointed out the mud-walled compound with a brown gate and shops on either side.
The city's police mounted a massive search operation for the escaped convicts. They shot dead two inmates who tried to evade capture and re-arrested another 26, said Tooryalai Wesa, the provincial governor.
But there was no ignoring that the Taliban had pulled off a daring success under the noses of Afghan and NATO officials.
"This is a blow," presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said. "A prison break of this magnitude of course points to a vulnerability."
At least 480 inmates escaped from Sarposa, most of them Taliban fighters, according to the governor of Kandahar province. The Taliban said they had freed more than 500 of their fellow insurgents and that about 100 of them were commanders - four of them former provincial chiefs.
Government officials declined to provide details on any of the escaped inmates, including whether any of them are considered high-level commanders. The highest-profile Taliban inmates would likely not be held at Sarposa. The U.S. keeps detainees it considers a threat at a facility outside of Bagram Air Base in eastern Afghanistan. Other key Taliban prisoners are held by the Afghan government in a high-security wing of the main prison in Kabul.
As the massive jailbreak suggests, the Afghan government remains weak in the south despite an influx of international troops, funding and advisers. Kandahar city, in particular, has been a focus of the international effort to establish a strong Afghan government presence in former Taliban strongholds.
The 1,200-inmate Sarposa prison has been part of that plan. The facility underwent security upgrades and tightened procedures after a brazen 2008 Taliban attack that freed 900 prisoners. In that assault, dozens of militants on motorbikes and two suicide bombers attacked the prison. One suicide bomber set off an explosives-laden tanker truck at the prison gate while a second bomber blew open an escape route through a back wall.
Afghan government officials and their NATO backers have repeatedly asserted that the prison has vastly improved security since that attack.
There are guard towers at each corner of the prison compound, which is illuminated at night and protected by a ring of concrete barriers topped with razor wire. The entrance can only be reached by passing through multiple checkpoints and gates.
An Afghan government official familiar with Sarposa prison said that while the external security has been greatly improved, the internal controls were not as strong. He said the Taliban prisoners in Sarposa were very united and would rally together to make demands from their jailers for better treatment or more privileges. He spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The prison break weakens the argument that international troops are making good progress in handing over more responsibility for security to Afghan forces, which will eventually enable the coalition to leave. President Barack Obama plans to start drawing down forces in July.
The Kandahar escape is the latest in a series of high-profile Taliban operations that show the insurgency is fighting back strongly against the surge of U.S. and NATO forces. Over the past year, tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO reinforcements routed the Taliban from many of their southern strongholds, captured leading figures and destroyed weapons caches.
The militants have responded with major attacks across the nation as the spring fighting season has kicked off. In the past two weeks, Taliban agents have launched attacks from inside the Defense Ministry, a Kandahar city police station and a shared Afghan-U.S. military base in the east. In neighboring Helmand province on Saturday, a gunman assassinated the former top civilian chief of Marjah district, where U.S. Marines started the renewed push into the south. The victim, Abdul Zahir, was also deputy of the provincial peace council.
Also on Saturday, a U.S. service member was killed in a bomb attack in southern Afghanistan, the American military said in a statement. It did not provide further details.
Vogt reported from Kabul. Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez contributed to this report from Kabul.