Insurgents freed hundreds of prisoners, including Taliban commanders, after tunnelling into an Afghan jail on Monday, officials said, in a serious security setback ahead of the planned start of foreign troop withdrawals.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's chief spokesman called the incident a disaster that exposed serious vulnerabilities in the Afghan government.daring
"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," Waheed Omer told a news conference.
"It shows a great vulnerability in the Afghan government."
Tooryalai Wesa, governor of the volatile southern Kandahar province, told Reuters 478 prisoners escaped due to the negligence of Afghan security forces at the province's main jail. He said the start of the tunnel had been traced to a house near the prison.
General Ghulam Dastgir, the governor in charge of the prison, told Reuters all the prisoners had escaped through the tunnel, which the insurgents had then lined with explosives.
"No one managed to escape through the main gate, everybody went out through the tunnel. The insurgents worked on it for some seven months," Dastgir said.
"The Taliban have planted bombs inside the tunnel and it is hard to investigate until the explosives are removed," he added.
The prison, touted as one of the most secure in Afghanistan, is on the outskirts of Kandahar city. Analysts said the escape was a serious setback for security, and there was doubt about whether the escape could have taken place without the connivance of prison guards, and even whether there had been a tunnel at all.
The Taliban said in a statement 541 prisoners escaped through a tunnel which took months to construct, and were later moved in vehicles to safer locations.
"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.
It said the tunnel was completed late on Sunday, with hundreds of insurgents escaping over a four-and-a-half hour period immediately afterwards.
DOUBTS OVER STORY
Afghan and foreign troops formed a wide perimeter around the prison on Monday morning, making it difficult to verify reports of the jailbreak independently.
Waheed Mujhda, a Kabul-based analyst and an expert on the Taliban, said it was impossible the insurgents could have dug a tunnel and free 500 prisoners and that the jailbreak had most likely been carried out in collaboration with prison guards.
"It is either a case of the jailers being financially motivated and being bribed, or a case of them being politically motivated," Mujhda said.
Whether the insurgents had tunnelled to the prison or not, the freeing of hundreds of prisoners, including Taliban militants, is embarrassing for the Afghan government and foreign troops who have trumpeted recent security gains in and around Kandahar after months of heavy fighting.
"It is a major setback for the foreign and Afghan troops who have claimed gains against the insurgents recently," Mujhda said.
Kandahar has been the focus of the U.S.-led military campaign over the past year, with tens of thousands of U.S. and Afghan troops launching offensives around Kandahar city.
The brazen jailbreak also comes months before the start of a transfer of security responsibilities from foreign to Afghan forces in several areas -- including the main city in neighbouring Helmand province -- as part of the eventual withdrawal of U.S-led troops from the country.
Under the transition programme, Afghan forces will begin taking over from foreign troops in seven areas this summer and should have control of the whole country by the end of 2014.
While Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, is not among the areas listed for the transition of forces in the first stage, Monday's jailbreak raises serious questions about the readiness of Afghan forces to take over from foreign troops.
It also drew comparisons to a similar incident three years earlier. In 2008, Taliban insurgents blew open the gate of the Kandahar prison at night, allowing up to 1,000 inmates, including hundreds of Taliban insurgents, to escape.
Days after that escape, Taliban fighters seized many villages in districts close to Kandahar and appeared to threaten the city itself, with the government sending more than 1,000 extra troops from the north as reinforcements. Nearly 100 Taliban fighters were killed in the ensuing battle.