Hundreds of prisoners escaped from a jail in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar on Monday through a tunnel dug by Taliban insurgents, officials said, calling it a “disaster” for the Afghan government and a setback for foreign forces planning to start a gradual withdrawal within months.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s chief spokesperson told a news conference that the incident, in which many Taliban commanders were said to have escaped, exposed serious vulnerabilities in the Afghan government.
“This is a blow, it is something that should not have happened. We are looking into finding out … what exactly happened and what is being done to compensate for the disaster that happened in the prison,” spokesman Waheed Omer said.
Kadahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa told Reuters that 488 prisoners escaped due to the negligence of Afghan security forces at the province’s main jail, touted as one of the most secure in Afghanistan. He said the tunnel led to a nearby house.
General Ghulam Dastgir, the governor in charge of the jail, said the prisoners had all escaped through the tunnel. “The Taliban have planted bombs inside the tunnel and it is hard to investigate until the explosives are removed,” he said.
Later on Monday, reporters were taken into the prison to view the opening of the tunnel in one of the cell blocks.
Reuters photographs showed a hole, several feet deep, cut into the concrete floor of one of the cells. The hole, big enough to allow one man to climb down at a time, appeared to be connected to a tunnel.
The Taliban said in a statement 541 prisoners escaped through the tunnel which took months to construct, and were later moved in vehicles to safer locations.
It said the prisoners escaped over a four-and-a-half hour period during the night, meaning more than 100 prisoners an hour would have had to crawl out through a tunnel barely large enough to fit one man.
“Mujahideen started digging a 320-metre tunnel to the prison from the south side, which was completed after a five-month period, bypassing enemy checkposts and the Kandahar-Kabul main highway leading directly to the political prison,” the Taliban statement said.
“They moved people in several groups. They had a comfortable period of time to move that many people. It’s obviously very worrying with the timing around fighting season,” said a foreign official in Kandahar with knowledge of the incident.
Wesa said of the 488 who had escaped, 13 were ordinary criminals and the rest were insurgents. Only 26 prisoners had so far been recaptured and two had been killed in a gunfight with security forces, he said.
“It is either a case of the jailers being financially motivated and being bribed, or a case of them being politically motivated,” said Waheed Mujhda, a Kabul-based analyst and expert on the Taliban.
Justice Ministry spokesman Farid Ahmad Najibi said he could not rule out the possibility guards had helped in the escape.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 26th, 2011.