By TAIMOOR SHAH and ALISSA J. RUBIN
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - 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. "We do not know if the tunnel was dug from outside or inside the prison," he said.
The Kandahar prison is the largest and most substantial prison in southern Afghanistan, and it 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.
It was the second time there has been a major prison break at the Sariposa prison in Kandahar. The Taliban orchestrated the freeing of 1,200 prisoners, of whom 350 were Taliban members, on June 13, 2008, staging an attack on the prison that killed 15 guards.
The break 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, will 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 in those closer to Kandahar.
A Taliban spokesman for the south and west of the country, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, said that a total of 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."
Taimoor Shah reported from Kandahar, and Alissa J. Rubin from Kabul, Afghanistan.