Some 500 Taliban prisoners escaped from an Afghan prison overnight through a massive underground tunnel that inmates had secretly created, officials said Monday.
The Taliban said it was behind the operation in Kandahar, the militant Islamist organization’s heartland in the south of the country, and that all of those who escaped were its members, many of them senior commanders, according to Agence-France Presse.
Taliban insurgents dug a tunnel more than 1,050-feet (320-meters.) The tunnel went from the main jail in Kandahar city to a house in the vicinity. Some 541 prisoners escaped, 106 among them were Taliban fighters, according to Al Arabiya correspondent Baker Atyani.
An official from Taliban told Al Arabiya the plan has been set five months ago.
The Taliban official told Al Arabiya, many buses were waiting for the prisoners at the end of the tunnel and they were transported to safe locations controlled by Taliban.
It was the second high-profile escape from the prison in three years, and is likely to be seen as yet more evidence of the country’s chaotic justice system. The episode certainly constitutes an embarrassment for local security forces.
“A tunnel hundreds of meters long was dug from the south of the prison into the prison and 476 political prisoners escaped last night,” said prison director General Ghulam Dastageer Mayar.
The escapees came from the political section of the prison, he said.
Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar province, said a total of 478 prisoners managed to escape due to “negligence” of Afghan security forces. He told Reuters the start of the tunnel had been traced to a house near the prison.
The prison, which is supposed to be one of the country's most secure, sits on the outskirts of Kandahar city and holds both captured insurgents and criminal prisoners.
In 2008, around 1,000 prisoners, including members of the Taliban, escaped after the militants used a truck bomb to blow open the gates.
Kandahar is seen as the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban movement, and the city and surrounding area is the scene of some of the worst fighting in Afghanistan. The city has a population of around 990,000.
A Taliban suicide bomber dressed in police uniform killed the city’s police chief 10 days ago, dealing a serious blow to security in the province.
Western analysts say Afghanistan’s prison and justice system is riddled with corruption.
In a report last November, the International Crisis Group said the Afghan justice system was “in a catastrophic state of disrepair,” and that most Afghans thought justice institutions were the most corrupt in the country.
There are around 130,000 international troops in Afghanistan, two-thirds of them from the United States, battling the Taliban and other insurgents.
The brazen jailbreak comes months before the start of a transfer of security responsibilities from foreign to Afghan forces in several areas. This transfer is part of the eventual withdrawal of the US-led troops from the country.
Under the transition program, Afghan forces will begin taking over from foreign troops in a few areas, but should have control of the entire country by the end of 2014. That, at least, is the plan.
(Abeer Tayel of Al Arabiya can be reached via email at: email@example.com)