Kandahar - Afghanistan
Nearly 500 prisoners were spirited out of the main jail in Kandahar, Afghanistan, overnight, through a 320-metre tunnel that the Taliban claims it secretly created over a five-month period.
The jailbreak of about 480 mostly Taliban prisoners comes after the 1,200-inmate Sarposa Prison had undergone a series of security upgrades and heightened procedures following a suicide bomb attack in 2008. That incident freed 900 inmates.
The escape, carried out in the dead of night, suggests some collusion with prison guards or officials. After months of battlefield setbacks for the Taliban, the jailbreak is a humiliating strike against their opponents.
As he announced that this latest plot is under investigation, Afghan presidential spokesman Waheed Omar was blunt.
"This is a blow," Omar told The Associated Press. "A prison break of this magnitude of course points to a vulnerability."
The Sarposa facility -- which does not hold as high-profile inmates as other jails near the Bagram Ari Base and Kabul -- is ringed by concrete barriers topped with razor wire. Guard towers also overlook the compound that should only be accessible through multiple gates and checkpoints.
But in a statement, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said a months-long effort to dig the tunnel beneath those checkpoints finally reached the prison cells at approximately 11 p.m. on Sunday night.
The Taliban are believed to even have sold off the dirt.
Reporters who later toured the prison were shown a one-meter diameter hole in a prison cell floor, leading to a 1.5-meter drop into the tunnel.
The tunnel led to a house, easily within shooting distance of the prison.
Over the course of the ensuing four-and-a-half hours, Mujahid said an undetected stream of inmates was assisted through that underground escapeway and out of the jail by three prisoners who were not only aware of the plan in advance, but had copies of the jail cell keys.
In a phone call to The Associated Press, a now-freed prisoner who claimed he helped organize the plot from within the prison walls suggested possible collusion with guards at the facility.
"There were four or five of us who knew that our friends were digging a tunnel from the outside," Mohammad Abdullah told the AP.
"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, describing how inmates were woken and quietly sneaked out in small groups of four or five.
Once out of the prison, the escapees were then disappeared into Kandahar city.
Mujahid claims that 100 of the freed inmates were Taliban commanders, while another Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said four were provincial-level commanders.
While Afghan officials remain tight-lipped about the identities of the escapees, Canadian Press reporter Colin Perkel said they were all officially classifies as "political prisoners."
Nevertheless, he says the fact they are now free is worrying for those trying to maintain security in the southern Afghanistan city considered to be the birthplace of the Taliban
"The prospect that these guys could return to the battlefield and soon be taking up arms again against coalition forces and Afghan security forces is a rather disconcerting proposition, especially with fighting season on the cusp at this particular moment," Perkel told CTV News in an interview from Kandahar.
Sarposa officials say they discovered the breach at 4 a.m., approximately 30 minutes after the insurgent group claims it had led the last of its escapees from the prison.
On Monday, Afghan and American security forces were swarming the area around the jail -- with a particular focus on the nearby house where they have confirmed the tunnel began.
But efforts to recapture the hundreds of escaped prisoners are subject to many challenges.
Even though authorities say they have biometric information that can be used to confirm the identities of the escapees, Perkel said nabbing them in and around Kandahar is next-to-impossible.
"The Afghan police are not exactly a crack investigative unit by any stretch of the imagination," he said.
"And Kandahar is kind of an aberrance. It's the home turf and local playground of these guys, so it's very, very easy for them to disappear and lie low."
So far, police said efforts to recapture the escapees had already netted 26. Another two were shot and killed when they tried to evade capture.
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