Officials say almost 500 prisoners, including Taliban commanders, escaped a Kandahar prison through a tunnel.
One of the escapees from Sarpoza prison described the inmates' surprise when, shortly before midnight Sunday, armed militants appeared in the prison, going cell to cell urging everyone to follow them.
By 3 a.m., hundreds of insurgents, including some of the Taliban's most dangerous commanders, had escaped through a tunnel to a house 350 yards away. It wasn't until 6 a.m., the Afghan Interior Ministry said, that guards noticed that the entire political-prisoners block was empty.
The escapees had by then been collected by a fleet of vehicles and dispersed throughout the region, the Taliban's spiritual heartland. The Taliban put the number of escapees at 541, including 106 Taliban commanders, while Afghan officials said a total of 475 prisoners had fled.
Late Monday, as a manhunt continued across Kandahar province, Afghan security forces had managed to recapture 34 fugitives and killed two in a shootout, a U.S. military official said.
The U.S.-led coalition didn't make any statements about the Sarpoza escape Monday. Asked about it, a coalition spokesman, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Dorrian, said that "an event of this nature won't be helpful," but that the coalition still had the momentum in Kandahar.
In a triumphant statement, the Taliban said they had placed a group of suicide bombers near the prison to divert the guards' attention during the escape. "The most astonishing thing," said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, was that "the need did not arise due to the inaction shown by the enemy." A U.S. military official confirmed that suicide bomber vests were found in the tunnel.
The tunnel, shown here, is 320 meters long.
Securing Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace and southern Afghanistan's main city, is the key objective of U.S. President Barack Obama's surge of 30,000 additional forces deployed last year. While the coalition's commander, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, has reported progress in rolling back the insurgency in Kandahar, the jailbreak set back these efforts.
"It's an amazing victory for the Taliban," said Haroun Mir, a Kabul political analyst who has long opposed the Taliban. "The Taliban was having trouble replacing their killed and captured commanders. They now have hundreds of commanders ready to fight again."
Last year, the Taliban tried to break into Sarpoza, which holds 1,200 inmates, using suicide bombers and small arms fire. They were repelled by the Afghan security forces.
Canada, which oversaw security in Kandahar until last year, has spent $4 million to bolster Sarpoza's defenses and train the wardens after the Taliban successfully stormed the facility in 2008, freeing some 900 inmates.
"After the 2008 escape, there was an increase in assassinations and general violence," says Felix Kuehn, a Kandahar-based researcher and author of books on the Taliban. "This escape will have a multiplying effect, as insurgents return to their communities to fight."
One of the escapees, a 24-year-old who said he had served the first three years of a 15-year sentence, said he stared in disbelief as armed Taliban knocked on his cell and told him to follow them Sunday night. "We asked where?" he recalled. "They said that we will take you to home. We could not believe until we saw the tunnel."
The Taliban put The Wall Street Journal in touch by telephone with the escapee. His descriptions of the prison and the escape were consistent with those provided by Afghan officials.
The Taliban said they had relied on "informants" inside the prison during Monday's operation. Kandahar's Mayor Haidar Hamidi said there were "some corrupt police inside the prison…and they likely helped the prisoners to escape."
The Taliban said the tunnel took five months to dig.
"This is very bad news for the government and the people of Afghanistan," said President Hamid Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omar.
While the most dangerous Taliban detainees are usually held at the U.S.-managed Parwan detention facility northeast of Kabul, the Sarpoza prison was packed with senior and midlevel commanders from across southern Afghanistan.
The escapees included several Taliban shadow governors and leading bomb makers, Afghan officials said. Only three Taliban inmates inside the prison were in on the plan, according to the escapee and the Taliban officials.
The Sarpoza prison was guarded solely by the Afghan forces, but the U.S. Army maintains a platoon of infantry troops and a unit of military police at an adjoining compound, a U.S. official said. U.S. forces often patrol the area.
Though the U.S. military has made major advances against the Taliban in rural districts around Kandahar city, it hasn't been able to stop Taliban assassinations and intimidation inside the city, Afghanistan's second largest.
Only 45 of Kandahar municipality's 125 positions are currently filled, Mr. Hamidi said, largely because Taliban threats of assassinating government workers are keeping potential applicants away. Earlier this month, the Taliban killed the Kandahar provincial police chief.
The 24-year-old escapee said that as the inmates were being gathered, four men among them—apparently government plants—began to scream to try to get the guards' attention. They were quickly silenced and blindfolded, he said.
Ghulam Dostagir Mayar, the prison's chief warden, said the cells were usually left unlocked at night so prisoners could use the common latrines. He said prison authorities hadn't planted any spies among the inmates.
The escapee said he would redouble his efforts against U.S. and Afghan forces now that he is free.
"My family members, relatives and friends used to tell me to quit the fight and start a normal life," the 24-year-old escapee said as he was celebrating his homecoming on Monday. "Now everybody in my family hates the government and hates the invaders. We showed that with the help of Allah we will defeat you all."
Sounds a lot like what happened at Stalag III. This will be a major setback to the US.