KABUL // Nearly 500 Taliban prisoners escaped on Sunday night from a fortified jail in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, fleeing through a 320-metre-long tunnel dug by militants from outside the prison.
The daring jailbreak has raised questions about the ability of Afghan security forces to stave off the Taliban-led insurgency.
The escape at Kandahar's main Sariposa prison began at midnight and lasted approximately four hours. It is said to have freed 476 Taliban fighters, officials and battlefield commanders who then disappeared into Afghanistan's second-largest city, according to the supervisor of Sariposa prison, Ghulam Dastagir Mayar.
The Taliban said it freed 541 of its fighters, 106 of whom were provincial-level commanders, and that the break was at least five months in the making.
The prison underwent major security upgrades after a Taliban-led prison break in 2008, in which nearly 1,000 prisoners were freed.
"Mujahideen started digging a 320-metre tunnel to the prison from the south side, which was completed after a five-month period, bypassing enemy check posts and [the] Kandahar-Kabul main motorway leading directly to the political prison," read a statement sent by the Taliban to journalists via e-mail and text message yesterday morning.
By yesterday afternoon, Kandahar police said they had recaptured at least eight of the escaped commanders. The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, said yesterday he would be opening an immediate investigation into the incident.
Mr Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the prison break was a "blow that exposes our vulnerability" and that it "should not have happened".
The mass getaway is an embarrassment for the Afghan government and its Nato backers, coming just three months before Afghan security forces were scheduled to take the lead in securing seven key areas of the country.
While Kandahar is not on the list of areas to be handed over to Afghan security forces in July, the province has been the major focus of Nato's "surge" strategy.
Tens of thousands of foreign troops, mostly US soldiers, have been deployed to southern Afghanistan in a bid to defeat the Taliban insurgency.
The US is spending US$20 billion (Dh73bn) over a two-year period to train Afghan police and army recruits in the area.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujihad told the Associated Press that inmates were ushered to freedom without drawing the attention of the guards. It remained unclear if Afghan security forces were complicit in the escape.
Guard towers stand at each corner of the prison compound, which is lit at night and protected by a ring of concrete barriers.
The entrance can only be reached by passing through multiple checkpoints and gates.
One US military analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed scepticism that the hundreds of Taliban fighters could have escaped without inside help.
The jailbreak follows a series of incidents where Taliban insurgents are believed to have either infiltrated Afghan security forces or been helped by them to attack foreign troops and government institutions.
Earlier this month, a suicide bomber wearing an Afghan National Army uniform infiltrated the heavily guarded Afghan Ministry of Defence in Kabul, but was shot dead before he detonated his explosives. In a separate attack in April, a suicide bomber also wearing an Afghan army uniform killed five US soldiers at a Nato base in eastern Afghanistan.
Another Western military analyst, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the recent attacks, coupled with the magnitude of the prison break, threaten to undercut the Nato mission, which rests largely on the loyalty and capability of Afghan security forces. Nato sought to distance itself from the security breach at Sariposa yesterday, referring queries to the Afghan Ministry of Interior and claiming its troops were on standby to assist in recapturing inmates.
"We are aware of the incident, but we don't have any involvement right now. This is entirely an Afghan operation," Nato spokesman Major Tim James said of the efforts to recapture prisoners and investigate the break.
"We do have troops in the area, and they're clearly on the lookout, but we are not directly assisting at this time."
Nato said the most senior Taliban commanders captured by foreign and Afghan forces are detained at the coalition airfield at Bagram near Kabul.
It would not comment on whether it expected the release of hundreds of Taliban fighters to result in deadlier attacks on foreign troops in the south.