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Mass jailbreak by Taliban stuns Kandahar


Afghan insurgents proudly claimed they helped dig the long, narrow tunnel used by at least 475 inmates to escape Sarposa prison in the southern city of Kandahar.
Some said they helped haul away the dirt during the last five months using pickup trucks, trailers and even donkey carts. The tunnel, measuring more than 1,050 feet long, reportedly began inside a Taliban sympathizer's mud-walled compound, surrounded by shops, and reached into the prison grounds.
It was unclear Monday whether those who helped dig the tunnel lived in the sympathizer's compound while they worked. But they said they plotted together as the tunnel grew, skirting police checkpoints, under the busy Kandahar-Herat highway and into a central cell block of the prison's political wing.
The tunnel had grown to about 3 feet wide by Sunday, when the diggers reached their goal.
Somehow, they had managed to alert a team of three Taliban inmates that they were coming, and given instructions on what to do when they arrived.
When they finally broke through the prison's concrete floor about 11 p.m., the three sentinels were waiting — with keys to fellow prisoners' cells.
Quietly, the guides unlocked cells and led hundreds of inmates to the tunnel without raising an alarm or disturbing their jailers.
An inmate who claimed to have helped organize the escape told the Associated Press on Monday that he used his connections to obtain copies of the cell keys in advance.
"There were four or five of us who knew that our friends were digging a tunnel from the outside," said Mohammad Abdullah, who was sentenced to two years at Sarposa after he was caught with a weapons cache. "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."
Mullah Asadullah Akhund, 30, claimed to have been among those awakened to join the escape.
Akhund told the Daily Beast by cellphone Monday that the senior Taliban commander in the prison woke him about 2 a.m. Akhund said he joined a line of prisoners moving through the narrow tunnel by flashlight. At one point, a large truck passed overhead, shaking the ground, knocking dirt onto the prisoners and causing them to fear the tunnel would collapse, he said.
"It was the greatest escape of my life," he told the Daily Beast. "It was like a dream."
Inmates spent 4 1/2 hours escorting at least 475 of their brethren, most of them political prisoners, to freedom without triggering security cameras or otherwise disturbing their guards, according to Afghan officials. Taliban spokesmen claimed 541 inmates were freed.
They also claimed that forces near the prison had been prepared to stage an attack, but the "need did not arise due to the inaction shown by the enemy."
Akhund said he escaped in a pickup with 10 others and within 20 minutes was at a Taliban safe house, where they hired a truck to take them to a nearby town to celebrate, according to the Daily Beast.
By the time prison officials discovered the escape Monday morning, Taliban officials said the inmates had been spirited away to "secure destinations."
Government officials said some of the Taliban accounts of the escape are exaggerated, but acknowledged that much of the basic story is true.
They confirmed that the tunnel began at the Taliban sympathizer's compound and that at least 475 inmates had escaped their locked cells.
Officials said the tunnel had undercut the prison's main line of above-ground defense, including guard towers at each corner, concrete barriers, razor wire and multiple entry checkpoints.
A Taliban spokesman claimed that 106 of the escapees were "important commanders." Sarposa has not been known to house the most dangerous Taliban fighters. The U.S. keeps Taliban detainees it considers a threat at a detention center outside Bagram air base in eastern Afghanistan while the Afghan government houses some others in a high-security area of the main prison in Kabul, the capital.
Afghanistan's Justice Ministry was responsible for securing the prison, which houses 1,200 inmates. Authorities had caught 26 of the escapees by late Monday and were confident about catching the rest with the help of biometric data, said Kandahar Gov. Tooryalai Wesa.
A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai said Monday that based on preliminary reports, the escape exposed serious problems with prison security.
"This is a blow. It is something that shouldn't have happened," spokesman Waheed Omer said. "A prison break of this magnitude of course points to vulnerability.... We have loopholes."

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