Hundreds of inmates, many of them insurgent fighters, slipped out of a southern Afghanistan prison early Monday through a nearly quarter-mile tunnel dug beneath the compound from the outside.
The Taliban issued a statement taking responsibility for the escape from the prison in Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed said digging the tunnel took five months. The escape took four and a half hours, he said. The Taliban claimed 541 prisoners escaped. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said the number of escaped prisoners was closer to 470. The Taliban said 106 of the escapees were military commanders, but there was no immediate government confirmation of the claim.
Monday’s break was the second dramatic escape at the prison in three years. In 2008, as many as 1,000 prisoners – nearly half of them Taliban members – escaped after militants detonated a truck bomb against the side of the prison compound.
The prison houses some of the country’s most dangerous Taliban prisoners, and the escape was an embarrassment for the Afghanistan government and its Western allies, according to CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen. “It’s, I think, quite a black eye for the U.S. and NATO and the Afghan government, who have put quite a lot of resources into trying to improve the prison systems, and here you have this massive prison break, with sadly, some pretty hardcore Taliban prisoners who escaped,” he said. (CNN)
“A tunnel hundreds of metres long was dug from the south of the prison into the prison and 476 political prisoners escaped last night,” said prison director General Ghulam Dastageer Mayar. (BBC)
One escapee told the BBC it had taken him about 30 minutes to walk the length of the tunnel. The escape took most of the night and vehicles were waiting at the exit point to take prisoners away. The diggers broke through to the cells late Sunday night. One inmate told the Associated Press that he and other inmates had obtained keys from “friends,” leading to speculation they had inside help. “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 the prison for two years for stockpiling 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.” (CBC) The inmate said the militants quietly snuck out prisoners four or five at a time. His story could not be independently verified, but parts of his account were confirmed by government officials.
Qaril Yousaf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, said more than 100 of the escapees were insurgent militants and commanderes. “After we took them out from there, we picked them up in our vehicles to send them out of the government-controlled area,” Ahmadi said. (CBC)
The mass escape prompted a huge manhunt around Kandahar. Afghan authorities claimed 26 escapees had been recaptured and two had been killed. “Huge operations have been launched inside and on the outskirts of Kandahar city for the rest of them,” said Tooryalai Wesa, a Kandahar governor. (CBC) An area around the jail was cordoned off.
Waheed Omer, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, called the mass escape “bad news and a disaster.” (CNN) “This is a blow,” he told BBC. “A prison break of this magnitude, of course, points to a vulnerability.” (BBC)
Although the Taliban and some of the escapees were military commanders, it’s unlikely the escape will have a significant impact on military operations in Afghanistan, said Thomas E. Gouttierre, director of the Center of Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. “I don’t think I would see this as a big blow to Western efforts in Afghanistan,” he said. (CNN) Instead, he said Afghanistan’s government is likely to bear the brunt of criticism for failing to anticipate or prevent the escape, especially after previous escapes at this end and other prisons.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said the military command in Afghanistan had “not been asked by the Afghans to provide any assistance” such as intelligence help in looking for the escaped inmates. Asked if the incident would prompt a rethinking or delay in the planned June turnover of the Parwan detention operation in the east to Afghans, Lapan said: “I think it’s still too soon to tell. I have not gotten any indications of that, but it’s too soon to tell.” (Toronto Star)
In the 2008 escape, militants used a truck loaded with about two tons of explosives and driven by suicide drivers to blast holes in the mud brick walls of the prison. A gun and rocket battle followed, lasting several hours and ending with militants rushing into the prison on motorcycles to free prisoners, according to Taliban accounts of the attack. Nine guards, seven prisoners and one civilian were killed in the attack, according to the provincial government.
Security forces said they tried to back down the escaped prisoners, but said the large Taliban presence in the region and the numerous hideouts located there made it difficult to hunt down militants.
Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban and has been the site of fierce fighting between international forces and insurgents. It has been the site of numerous anti-Western demonstrations, recently over the burning of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, by a pastor in the United States.
On April 15, the police chief of Kandahar province was killed when a man wearing a military uniform detonated a bomb at the entrance to the police quarters.
In February, 10 people died when mines exploded at a playground during a picnic hosted by a former police commander. In a separate incident, 19 people, including 15 police officers, died when armed attackers targeted police headquarters.
After attacks on the country’s ministry of defense, the assassination of the police chief and now Monday’s prison break, Kandahar resident Kari Ghar said it’s “impossible to call this system a government… This is the worst possible weakness of the Afghan government that almost every single political prisoners escape from the central jail in Kandahar,” Ghar said. (CNN)