By MIRWAIS KHAN and HEIDI VOGT, Associated Press Apr 25, 2011
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – During the long Afghan winter, Taliban insurgents
were apparently busy underground.
The militants say they spent more than five months building a 1,050-foot
tunnel to the main prison in southern Afghanistan, bypassing government
checkpoints, watch towers and concrete barriers topped with razor wire.
The diggers finally poked through Sunday and spent 4 1/2 hours ferrying
away more than 480 inmates without a shot being fired, according to the
Taliban and Afghan officials. Most of the prisoners were Taliban
Accounts of the extraordinary prison break, carried out in the dead of
night, suggest collusion with prison guards, officials or both.
Following a recent wave of assassinations here, the breakout underscores
the weakness of the Afghan government in the south despite an influx of
international troops, funding and advisers. It also highlights the spirit
and resourcefulness of the Taliban despite months of battlefield setbacks.
Officials at Sarposa prison in Kandahar city, the one-time Taliban
capital, say they discovered the breach at about 4 a.m. Monday, a
half-hour after the Taliban say they had gotten all the prisoners safely
to a house at the other end of the tunnel.
Government officials corroborated parts of the Taliban account. They
confirmed the tunnel was dug from a house within shooting distance of the
prison and that the inmates had somehow gotten out of their locked cells
and disappeared into the night. Kandahar remains relatively warm even
during winter and the ground would not have frozen while insurgents were
digging the tunnel.
Police showed reporters the roughly hewn hole that was punched through the
cement floor of the prison cell. The opening was about 3 feet (1 meter) in
diameter, and the tunnel dropped straight down for about 5 feet (1.5
meters) and then turned in the direction of the house where it originated.
But access was denied to the tunnel itself, and it was unclear how the
Taliban were able to move so many men out of the prison so quickly. Also
unclear was why guards would not have heard the diggers punch through the
cement floor, and whether they supervise the inside of the perimeters at
A man who claimed he helped organize those inside the prison told The
Associated Press in a phone call that he and his accomplices obtained
copies of the keys for the cells ahead of time from "friends." He did not
say who those friends were.
Click image to see photos of the prison break in Afghanistan
"There were four or five of us who knew that our friends were digging a
tunnel from the outside," said Mohammad Abdullah, who said he had been in
Sarposa prison for two years after being captured in nearby Zhari district
with a stockpile of weapons. "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."
He said the diggers broke through Sunday morning and that the inmates in
the cell covered the hole with a prayer rug until the middle of the night,
when they started quietly opening the doors of cells and ushering
prisoners in small groups into the tunnel.
He said they woke the inmates up four or five at a time to sneak them out
quietly. They also didn't want too many people crawling through the narrow
and damp tunnel at one time because of worries that they would run out of
oxygen, Abdullah said.
The AP reached Abdullah on a phone number supplied by a Taliban spokesman.
His account could not immediately be verified.
The Taliban statement said it took 4 1/2 hours for all the prisoners to
clear the tunnel, with the final inmates emerging into the house at 3:30
a.m. They then used a number of vehicles to shuttle the escaped convicts
to secure locations.
Reporters were not allowed into that building, but officials pointed out
the mud-walled compound with a brown gate and shops on either side.
The city's police mounted a massive search operation for the escaped
convicts. They shot and killed two inmates who tried to evade capture and
re-arrested another 26, said Tooryalai Wesa, the provincial governor.
But there was no ignoring that the Taliban had pulled off a daring success
under the noses of Afghan and NATO officials.
"This is a blow," presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said. "A prison break
of this magnitude of course points to a vulnerability."
At least 486 inmates escaped from Sarposa, most of them Taliban fighters,
according to Gov. Wesa. The Taliban said they had freed more than 500 of
their fellow insurgents and that about 100 of them were commanders — four
of them former provincial chiefs.
Government officials declined to provide details on any of the escaped
inmates or say whether any were considered high-level commanders.
The highest-profile Taliban inmates would likely not be held at Sarposa.
The U.S. keeps detainees it considers a threat at a facility outside of
Bagram Air Base in eastern Afghanistan. Other key Taliban prisoners are
held by the Afghan government in a high-security wing of the main prison
Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said the military command in
Afghanistan had "not been asked by the Afghans to provide any assistance"
such as intelligence help in looking for the escaped inmates.
Asked if the incident would prompt a rethinking or delay in the planned
June turnover of the Parwan detention operation in the east to Afghans,
Lapan said: "I think it's still too soon to tell. I have not gotten any
indications of that, but it's too soon to tell."
The 1,200-inmate Sarposa prison has been part of a plan to bolster the
government's presence in Kandahar. The facility underwent security
upgrades and tightened procedures after a brazen 2008 Taliban attack freed
900 prisoners. In that assault, dozens of militants on motorbikes and two
suicide bombers attacked the prison. One suicide bomber set off an
explosives-laden tanker truck at the prison gate while a second bomber
blew open an escape route through a back wall.
Afghan government officials and their NATO backers have repeatedly
asserted that the prison has vastly improved security since that attack.
There are guard towers at each corner of the prison compound, which is
illuminated at night and protected by a ring of concrete barriers topped
with razor wire. The entrance can be reached only by passing through
multiple checkpoints and gates.
An Afghan government official familiar with Sarposa prison said that while
the external security has been greatly improved, the internal controls
were not as strong. He said the Taliban prisoners in Sarposa were very
united and would rally together to make demands from their jailers for
better treatment or more privileges. He spoke anonymously because he was
not authorized to talk to the media.
The Kandahar escape is the latest in a series of high-profile Taliban
operations that show the insurgency is fighting back. Over the past year,
tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO reinforcements routed the Taliban from
many of their southern strongholds, captured leading figures and destroyed
The militants have responded with major attacks across the nation as the
spring fighting season has kicked off. In the past two weeks, Taliban
agents have launched attacks from inside the Defense Ministry, a Kandahar
city police station and a shared Afghan-U.S. military base in the east. In
neighboring Helmand province on Saturday, a gunman assassinated the former
top civilian chief of Marjah district. That's where U.S. Marines started
the renewed push into the south early last year.
Vogt reported from Kabul. Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Rahim
Faiez in Kabul and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this