Manhunt on for hundreds of Taliban sprung from Afghan jail

KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S.-backed Afghan forces launched a massive manhunt Monday for hundreds of inmates, most of them Taliban fighters, who fled down a tunnel burrowed under the walls of southern Kandahar Province’s main maximum security prison.

The second spectacular mass breakout from Sarposa Prison in nearly three years underscored how Afghan security forces remain plagued by deficiencies despite receiving billions of dollars in training and equipment from the United States and other countries.

The U.S. and its allies are working to bolster the country’s security forces as a major component of their strategy to transfer responsibility for security throughout the country to the national government by 2014.

“This incident reminds that we still have loopholes,” conceded Wahed Omar, a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai. “We are worried about it. This is a blow and it is something that should not have happened.”

The breakout, an intensifying campaign of assassinations of local officials and a recent series of attacks on government facilities show how resilient the Taliban-led insurgency remains despite suffering battlefield setbacks since last year’s surge of U.S. forces into Kandahar and the adjacent insurgent stronghold of Helmand Province.

At least 488 prisoners fled Sarposa Prison though the 1,050-foot tunnel dug from a nearby house before guards in the facility, which is encircled by walls topped with razor wire and guard towers, discovered the breakout, Kandahar Province Gov. Toryalai Wesa said in a statement.

Wesa accused Afghan intelligence and prison officials of neglect and of failing to properly perform their duties.

Afghan security forces closed off exits from Kandahar city, the headquarters of the Taliban movement until the 2001 U.S. invasion, and fanned out in a search for the escapees, rounding up 24 by the end of the day, officials said.

Two were killed when they tried to resist arrest, said Gen. Salim Ehsas, a senior police commander. He expressed confidence that the rest would be “rearrested soon” because authorities have their biometric data, including fingerprints and retina scans.

But several residents expressed concern that many escapees would return to fighting the U.S.-backed government, reversing security improvements in and around the country’s second largest city brought by last year’s U.S. troop surge.

“Absolutely it will affect the situation and the security will get worse because a large number of Taliban, including some senior commanders, fled the jail,” said Hekmatullah, a resident, who like many Afghans uses only one name.

“There is no government, no administration. The government exists in name only,” he said. “This will give morale to the Taliban.”

The Taliban took credit for the breakout, with a spokesman insisting that 541 prisoners _ 53 more than the official tally _ escaped. They included “106 important commanders,” said Qari Yosuf Ahmadi, speaking by cellular telephone from an undisclosed location.

That last assertion was doubtful as senior insurgents are held at a maximum security facility at Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, or at government-run Puli Charki prison in Kabul.

It took six months to dig the two-foot-wide tunnel and four hours for all of the escapees to make their way out of the facility, beginning at 11 p.m. on Sunday, said Ahmadi.

It appeared that the plot involved inside assistance. Those involved had keys with which they opened the door to the cell in the prison’s political block where the tunnel emerged, as well as the doors to the other escapees’ cells.

Nor was it clear why guards were not alerted when those digging the tunnel punched through the concrete floor of the cell to which they burrowed their passage.

Another branch of the tunnel was dug underneath the block holding ordinary criminals, but prison officers were able to thwart a mass breakout from that section, Wesa, the provincial governor, told reporters.

The breakout occurred despite improvements made to the prison after some 900 inmates escaped on June 13, 2008, when dozens of insurgents attacked the prison as two suicide bombers blew breaches in the walls.

“This jailbreak shows the incompetency of the government,” said Noorulahaq Ulomi, a former parliamentarian from Kandahar. “It is like ... a victory for the Taliban.”

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