The Taliban staged an audacious prison break here early Monday, freeing at least 476 political prisoners through a long tunnel, according to the warden, Gen. Ghulam Dastagir Mayar.
He said that security authorities had discovered in the morning that the prisoners from the political wing of the building were gone, and that the authorities had just found the tunnel.
National security officials said the tunnel was dug from the outside and went under the Kabul-Kandahar highway and then into the prison. There are conflicting reports on its length, ranging from roughly 360 meters stated by the Taliban to the police who said to journalists that it was more than 1,000 meters. Officials said there would be more definitive information later in the day.
The governor of Kandahar, Wesa Toorylai, sharply criticized the security forces. “This is absolutely the fault of the ignorance of the security forces,” Mr. Toorylai said. “This was not the work of a day, a week or a month of activities. This was actually months of work they spent to dig and free their men.”
Mr. Toorylai appealed to the public to provide information to security authorities if they saw any Taliban in their area.
It was the second major prison break at the Sarposa prison, the largest and most substantial prison in southern Afghanistan. The prison houses Taliban who were captured in Zabul, Oruzgan and Kandahar, including some senior Taliban figures as well as many lower level Taliban, according to security officers working with the prison. On June 13, 2008, the Taliban orchestrated the freeing of 1,200 prisoners, of whom 350 were Taliban members, in an attack that killed 15 guards.
The escape Monday comes at a critical moment in the Taliban’s fight in southern Afghanistan. Pushed out of their strongholds in the rural areas outside the city and under pressure from a large number of NATO troops who have fanned out into the villages, they have been able to maintain a presence, but nothing close to the dominant role they had even a year ago.
Bringing back a large cadre of experienced fighters, many of whom will have been able to refine their skills in prison, could give the Taliban leadership the flexibility and human resources to send fighters into new districts where there are fewer NATO troops and bolster their numbers closer to Kandahar.
“This will have a negative effect on Kandahar’s security situation,” said Abdul Wahab Salihi, the deputy intelligence chief in Kandahar. “I don’t know how many among them were leaders or prominent people, but we are working on this and checking their background, but if there is a fire and you put more wood on it, there will be more flames, so these escaped people will add fuel to the fire.”
A Taliban spokesman for the south and west of the country, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, said that 541 prisoners had escaped and that among them were 106 Taliban commanders. “Now they are all in safe havens,” he said.
In a deft propaganda ploy, the Taliban gave a gripping description of the prison break in a statement they sent out to the news media ahead of any comment from the security authorities who were just in the process of discovering the tunnel.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said in the statement: “We have planned and worked on this for five months, and the tunnel is 360 meters long,” he said. “This was very important for us; we were trying to not leave anyone behind, not even one sick or old political prisoner.”
“Our mujahedeen worked in a very careful way” so as not to be discovered, Mr. Mujahid said. The tunnel wound under security check posts outside the prison and under a main highway.
At 11 p.m. Sunday, three Taliban prisoners, who he said were the only ones who knew, “went from cell to cell waking people and guiding each of them to the tunnel.”
“More Taliban were on hand as the prisoners emerged from the dirt and dust of the tunnel to guide the dazed prisoners to waiting vehicles. Also on hand were Taliban fighters and suicide bombers in case the security forces woke up and there was a fight.
“Luckily we did not have to use them,” Mr. Mujahid said. “The security forces did not know until sunrise.”