Around 541 members of the Taliban, including some top military commanders, escaped from Kandahar city's main jail, this Sunday, through a 320 meter-long tunnel that took five months in the making.
However, police in Kandahar stated, later on Monday, that they had recaptured 26 of the 541 prisoners, and that two of them were killed in the process.
The 1,200-inmate Sarposa Prison, known to be the most secure prison in the country, is part of a plan to strengthen the government's presence in Kandahar. Just recently, the prison underwent security upgrades and tightened procedures after a 2008 Taliban attack that helped 900 prisoners escape. In that assault, dozens of militants on motorbikes and two suicide bombers attacked the prison. One suicide bomber set off an explosives-laden tanker truck at the prison gate while a second bomber blew open an escape route through a back wall.
But this time it was different, more “well planned”, according to the prison guards.
A statement was later issued by the Taliban boasting about the easy escape for which “not a single shot was fired”.
“The tunnel was not dug by the inmates but by fighters outside the prison. These Mujahedeen began digging a 320 meter-long tunnel from a house to the prison from the south side, which was completed after a five-month period, bypassing check posts, the Kandahar-Herat main highway, government checkpoints, watch towers and concrete barriers topped with razor wire, leading directly to the political prison," the statement read. (It is surprising that the Taliban secretly dug a tunnel more than 300 meters long, right under the guards’ noses, right in the middle of a big city, and nobody noticed?)
"The tunnel reached its target last night, from where the prisoner Mujahedeen were led away through the escape route by three previously informed inmates in a period of four-and-a-half hours, starting from 11pm last night and ending at 3:30am this morning. Mujahedeen later on sent vehicles to the inmates who were led away to secure destinations."
"We had proper digging equipment. There was so much earth from the tunnel that we carried it away gradually and sold it in the market. We had the support of skilled professionals - people who were trained engineers, who advised us on the digging," he added. "We managed to hit the spot where the prisoners were kept."
Security guards at Sarposa prison say they discovered the breach at about 4 a.m. Monday, a half-hour after the Taliban say they had gotten all the prisoners safely to a house at the other end of the tunnel.
Police showed reporters the roughly dug hole that was punched through the cement floor of the prison cell. The opening was about 3 feet (1 meter) in diameter, and the tunnel dropped straight down for about 5 feet (1.5 meters) and then turned in the direction of the house where it originated.
A man, who claimed to have helped organize those inside the prison, told The Associated Press in a phone call that he and his accomplices obtained copies of the keys for the cells ahead of time from "friends." He did not say who those friends were.
"There were four or five of us who knew that our friends were digging a tunnel from the outside," said Mohammad Abdullah, who said he had been in Sarposa prison for two years after being captured in nearby Zhari district with a stockpile of weapons. "Some of our friends helped us by providing copies of the keys. When the time came at night, we managed to open the doors for friends who were in other rooms."
He said the diggers broke through Sunday morning and that the inmates in the cell covered the hole with a prayer rug until the middle of the night, when they started quietly opening the doors of cells and ushering prisoners in small groups into the tunnel.
Wali Mohammad, a Taliban fighter in Helmand province's Marjah district before being jailed, said he was woken at 1:30am on Monday by noises in his prison cell.
"When I opened my eyes, I saw three Taliban armed with Kalashnikovs who were waking the prisoners”. They guided us to the top of the hole and we all got in, one after another. There were lights inside the tunnel and also a pipe which I think was carrying air. It took us around half an hour to reach the other end,” he claimed.
After emerging from the tunnel into the safe house, he tried to flee to his cousin's home in Kandahar city in search of food and clothing. But as he reached his safe haven, people and police became suspicious of him as he was barefoot and his clothes were stained with mud from the tunnel and they arrested him.
A second prisoner, Jaan Mohammad, insisted he was not a Taliban and was forced to escape. "They pointed their guns towards us and warned that we either go or they will shoot us, so we went," he said.
"The air inside the tunnel was very heavy and I felt like choking. At the other end of the tunnel, there were eight or nine people who told us to disperse and leave. I went to a village and hid myself among the wheat fields there but people saw me and they informed the police, who later arrested me,” he claimed.
A third man, a Taliban fighter Hamid Gul, said he knew an escape was forthcoming.
"It was later in the night that we realized it was time as we heard some noise. The doors of our cell are not usually locked, so we easily got out and went to the tunnel. I was told to go to Arghandab district (elsewhere in Kandahar province) and join the Taliban there but I was detained by police inside Kandahar city," he said.
But there is no ignoring the fact that the Taliban had pulled off a daring success right under the noses of Afghan and NATO officials.
In another statement, the Taliban boasted that "the most astonishing thing" was that the escape had taken four-and-a-half hours, finished at 3.30am but went unnoticed until four hours later.
A successful escapee bragged of the ease of their escape and the failure of prison guards to notice which will raise questions about discipline among staff and the training they received from Canadian 'mentors.' "They were just sleeping," he claimed. "They are always intoxicated, smoking heroin, smoking hashish, or sleeping." He will now rejoin the insurgency, he said. "I have been doing jihad for 10 years. I will fight again, I will fight again!"
The Afghan presidential spokesman Waheed Omar described the incident as a "disaster" while local intelligence officials fear an upsurge in violence will be repeated this time.
Experts in the US predict that the experience of insurgents in the Afghan jail, where conditions are frequently insanitary and overcrowded, can boost their determination to fight pro-government forces.
“These people will have bad memories from the time of their detention, they will have bad memories from interrogations and I’m sure they will come back and wreak revenge,” said Noor-Ul Haq Ulumi, a former Afghan general with extensive experience in the south.
Conspiracy? (Isn’t there always one?)
While some anti-American agents claim this is a conspiracy orchestrated by the CIA and supported by the local prison guards as a reason for the US to stay in Afghanistan to keep the War On Terror going and not turn over power to the Afghans. This is because the US is making millions by investing in programs, military equipment, ammunition, weaponry research etc. There are around 130,000 international troops in Afghanistan, two-thirds of them from the United States, battling the Taliban and other insurgents.
Other analysts seem to point fingers at the Karzai government, which is currently pursuing peace talks with Taliban elements as international combat troops prepare to start limited withdrawals from July ahead of a full pull-out by 2014. They suggest the Afghan government may even have overlooked the plot as a way of ‘building bridges with the Taliban’ and furthering peace efforts by President Hamid Karzai as NATO troops start withdrawing. "The escape is a political cover, this is a political move," said an official (who did not want to be named). "This could not have happened without the knowledge or even facilitation of the Afghan government."
I guess we will never really know the truth... Will we?