Hundreds Of Militants Escape Afghan Prison

Nearly 500 prisoners — many of them Taliban fighters — have escaped from a prison in the southern city of Kandahar. It was the second major prison break in the city in three years.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Southern Afghanistan was the scene of a remarkable prison break over the weekend. Late Sunday night, nearly 500 inmates from Kandahar's biggest prison escaped through a manmade tunnel about 1,000 feet long. It's the second massive jailbreak at the facility in the past three years.

From Kabul, NPR's Quil Lawrence has the latest.

QUIL LAWRENCE: A Taliban spokesman, contacted by phone, bragged that the jailbreak was an unqualified success, emptying out the political prisoners' section of the penitentiary.

While the Taliban often exaggerate their claims, this time their propaganda wing announced the breakout before Afghan government authorities even seemed to be aware the prisoners were gone.

Mr. ZAIBULLAH MUJAHID: (Speaking foreign language).

LAWRENCE: Over five months, Taliban insurgents dug the tunnel, said Zaibullah Mujahid. The Taliban claims more than 500 prisoners were able to slip out before the authorities even noticed.

The Taliban had suicide bombers standing by to divert the guards' attention, but the tactic proved unnecessary. Mujahid said the prisoners, including three inmates involved in the plan, started moving out through the tunnel at 11 p.m. local time and finished at about three in the morning. The fugitives include more than 100 commanders, he said.

Local authorities say they have recaptured more than a dozen, but Wahid Omar, spokesman for the Afghan president, admitted the jailbreak was a disaster.

Mr. WAHEED OMAR (Spokesman for the President of Afghanistan): A prison break of this magnitude, it of course points to vulnerability, and we need to accept this. And what made this incident of this magnitude to happen, we'll come back with more details as to what exactly happened and what we are doing to correct it.

LAWRENCE: But the Afghan government has tried to fix the problems at Kandahar's prison before, notably after a jailbreak in June, 2008. Then, it was a Taliban truck bomb that breached the walls and allowed about 1,000 prisoners to run free.

Both the Canadian and U.S. military assisted in refitting the prison with new guard towers, prison cell doors and gates to prevent any future car bomb from getting close to the prison walls.

None of that prevented the tunnel, which actually passed underneath the main highway from Kandahar to Kabul. Afghan authorities say they are investigating who might be to blame for security lapses.

NATO officials declined to comment about how many of the escapees are considered Taliban leaders, but Afghan officials are concerned that many seasoned fighters may now return to the war.

Since last summer's American troop surge into southern Afghanistan, hundreds of Taliban fighters and commanders have been killed or captured. Most of them are turned over to Afghan authorities and kept in prisons like the one in Kandahar.

Quil Lawrence, NPR news, Kabul.

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