Taliban Frees Prisoners in Kandahar

NATO and Afghan military forces are preparing to take on Taliban militants who have seized a string of villages and fruit orchards just outside Kandahar. This just days after Taliban militants stormed a Kandahar prison, freeing more than a thousand detainees, including Taliban fighters.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND:

I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, a levee breaks, severe flooding, and evacuations in the Midwest.

COHEN: We go first to Afghanistan. That's where Afghan soldiers and NATO forces are defending the northern outskirts of Kandahar today. Hundreds of Taliban fighters moved into several nearby villages over the weekend, and that prompted residents to flee the area. Mark Laity is the spokesman for the NATO force in Afghanistan.

Mr. MARK LAITY (NATO Spokesman, Afghanistan): We've sent out overnight 700 Afghan army troops, which is a significant number and I think proves, one, our ability to react quite quickly. But also, that's a lot of troops. And I think that will help reassure the population - certainly, will be a big deterrent.

COHEN: NPR's Ivan Watson has been to the district of Arghandab today, and he joins us now. Ivan, tell us what you saw there.

IVAN WATSON: Alex, I saw families loaded up on tractors and in cars rolling out of this lush valley which is located about 10 minutes drive north of Kandahar. And these villagers were saying that Taliban fighters were openly walking armed in their villages, that they'd arrived within the last two to three days, and that these villages were about two miles away from the last Afghan army checkpoint.

So we've got thousands of Afghan civilians that have fled since yesterday from this area. Meanwhile, at the same time, I saw a convoy of Afghan soldiers on trucks rolling into the area. And it appears that the Taliban, at least this morning, were operating on the western bank of a river that cuts through this valley of dense fruit orchards while the Afghan army was setting up on the eastern bank. It does look like both sides are heading towards a confrontation.

COHEN: The Taliban's moves in Arghandab came just days after a raid on a prison in Kandahar. That raid freed a thousand prisoners. And I understand you've been to that prison today?

WATSON: Yes, Alex. It's been the scene of a massive explosion, this rather daring raid. It was a sophisticated operation. It began with a truck bomb outside the front gate of the prison, and that explosion demolished a two-story house in front of the prison. It leveled a 50-foot-long stretch of the 15-foot wall in front of the prison and caused damage to the market around the area with a radius of about 50 yards in every direction, blowing away these metal doors in front of the market stalls.

And then after that initial attack, dozens of Taliban fighters raced in with rocket-propelled grenades, and they were able to take out the Afghan guard force that was protecting that prison. So you have evidence of a major battle there and the subsequent release of about 1,000 prisoners, including hundreds of Taliban fighters. And I'm told by local Afghan officials that there were some notorious Taliban commanders from throughout the region that escaped that night.

COHEN: How serious of a move is this, freeing 1,000 prisoners?

WATSON: Well, it's deeply unsettled the population in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city. There was far less traffic than usual in the streets of the city. The people I spoke with said they were scared. There were criminals out on the streets of the city, you know, as a result of this big jail break. And it demonstrated the weakness of the Afghan government, the fact that it could not control one of its own prisons, and showed a fair amount of weakness on the part of the NATO forces here, more than 50,000 NATO troops deployed around the country.

And it also shows that the Taliban is increasingly adopting more sophisticated methods. It's a sign that somebody within the insurgency has some more operational skills beyond the daily routine of deadly roadside bombs and suicide attacks that have claimed the lives of hundreds of NATO troops as well as thousands of Afghan civilians and Afghan security forces.

COHEN: NPR's Ivan Watson reporting from Afghanistan. Thank you, Ivan.

WATSON: You're welcome, Alex.

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