KABUL: Recaptured Taliban fighters who escaped from one of Afghanistan’s most secure prisons during a mass breakout have described how insurgent comrades outside built a sophisticated tunnel with lighting and piped air to take them to freedom.
Afghan authorities and foreign troops have launched a manhunt after Monday’s escape in Kandahar by almost 500 fighters, which President Hamid Karzai’s office called a “disaster”. Seventy-one have been recaptured so far.
Several of those fighters, now back in prison, have told how the spectacular escape was staged, with their cell doors opened in darkness by insurgents armed with AK-47 rifles.
“When I went out the Taliban told me ‘you are free and go wherever you want’. The tunnel was very bright and we had to crawl to get out,” said one recaptured fighter named Wali Jan.
“There was plastic pipe on the side of the tunnel and on the other side was an electricity cable with thousands of bulbs. I think the pipe was for breathing air,” Jan told journalists at a media conference organised by Afghan intelligence officials.
Justice Minister Habibullah Ghaleb, in a letter to Karzai, has laid much of the blame for the breakout from Sarposa jail on failings by foreign and Afghan security forces, speculating also that it was an inside job.
The house where the entrance to the 320-metre long tunnel began lay within sight of the high-security prison and was searched not long before the breakout, Ghaleb said. The Taliban have said the tunnel took five months to build.
Jan said there were around 20 prisoners in his cell when the door was opened for them. They then crawled along the tunnel’s dirt floor, a journey which took around 30 minutes in oppressive and crowded conditions.
“Some were terrified and didn’t want to go out. I crawled through the tunnel and my clothes were covered in mud. I was a complete stranger to the area outside,” he said.
Another escapee named Samiullah said he had not been an insurgent and had known nothing of the escape plan, but had been forced at gunpoint into the tunnel’s entrance through a hole in the concrete cell floor.
“We were asleep when Taliban woke us up around midnight and said: ‘Get out, if you don’t we will shoot you dead’,” he said.
Jan said that after emerging from the tunnel in darkness he had tried to reach his cousin’s house in nearby Kandahar city to get hold of fresh clothing and food.
But he was soon spotted by security forces who became suspicious because he was barefoot and his clothes had been caked in mud, he said. Authorities issued an alert immediately after the breakout warning most escapees did not have shoes.
The jail governor, General Ghulam Dastgir, said on Tuesday that many of the prisoners still on the run had likely fled to safe havens in neighbouring Pakistan.
Security has been tightened along the often-porous 2,400 km border and Dastgir said biometric data held on all prisoners at the jail would help in the capture of others.
Many of those still on the run are experienced fighters and their breakout is a serious blow coming just weeks ahead of the summer fighting months. It also came after a concerted NATO and Afghan campaign to capture militants over the past year.
Afghanistan’s government has launched a full investigation into the breakout, the second in three years at the jail, which Karzai’s chief spokesman said had exposed serious holes in the country’s security preparedness.
In 2008, around 1,000 prisoners including Taliban fighters escaped after a truck bomb blew open the jail gates. That mass escape quickly led to a surge in fighting.