Hundreds of prisoners escape from Kandahar prison


An Afghan National Army soldier keeps watch outside Kandahar’s main jail April 25, 2011.  Insurgents tunnelled into the main jail in Afghanistan’s volatile Kandahar province on Monday, freeing hundreds of prisoners, including many Taliban commanders, a serious setback for U.S. forces who hope to start withdrawing in coming months.

Matthew Fisher, Postmedia News · Apr. 25, 2011 | Last Updated: Apr. 25, 2011 10:41 AM ET

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Canada’s pending withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan could become more perilous as the result of a jailbreak of more than 400 prisoners from Kandahar’s supposedly high security main jail on Sunday night and Monday morning.

The inmates escaped from Sarpoza Prison over several hours between dusk and dawn without a single shot being fired. They used a 300 metre long tunnel that the Taliban claimed Monday that it had spent five months burrowing under and into the jail.

The tunnel surfaced in the jail’s political block. It is in a corner of the prison with a pleasant courtyard and a cooking area that is home to hundreds of insurgents including some who are considered to be mid-level Taliban leaders.

“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,” government spokesman Waheed Omer said.

Tooryalai Wesa, governor of volatile southern Kandahar province, told Reuters 488 prisoners escaped due to the negligence of Afghan security forces at the province’s main jail. He said the tunnel led to a nearby house.

General Ghulam Dastgir, the governor in charge of the jail, said the prisoners had all escaped through the tunnel.

“The Taliban have planted bombs inside the tunnel and it is hard to investigate until the explosives are removed,” he said.

Later on Monday, reporters were taken into the prison to view the opening of the tunnel in one of the cell blocks.

Reuters photographs showed a hole, several feet deep, cut into the concrete floor of one of the cells. The hole, big enough to allow one man to climb down at a time, appeared to be connected to a tunnel.

A large carpet in the cell looked to have been folded back to expose the hole. Police told reporters the insurgents had used car jacks to break through the concrete floor, which was several centimetres thick.

The Taliban said in a statement 541 prisoners escaped through the tunnel which took months to construct, and were later moved in vehicles to safer locations.

It said the prisoners escaped over a four-and-a-half hour period during the night, meaning more than 100 prisoners an hour would have had to crawl out through a tunnel barely large enough to fit one man.

“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.

“They moved people in several groups. They had a comfortable period of time to move that many people. It’s obviously very worrying with the timing around fighting season,” said a foreign official in Kandahar with knowledge of the incident.

Wesa said of the 488 who had escaped, 13 were ordinary criminals and the rest were insurgents. Only 26 prisoners had so far been recaptured and two had been killed in a gunfight with security forces, he said.

No Canadians were present at the prison during the breakout although Corrections Canada officers pay regular visits to Sarpoza, where they mentor Afghan guards. Living conditions in the penitentiary have improved greatly since the Canadians began making regular visits several years ago.

Canadian troops rushed to the scene of the last exodus from Sarpoza in June, 2008, when more than 1,000 inmates were sprung during a brazen daylight assault on the prison walls and gate that involved a massive truck bomb, other suicide bombers and more than a dozen armed insurgents. There was no such Canadian response this time because Canada handed over security responsibility for Kandahar City to American troops on July 1, 2010.

Nevertheless, Canadian forces in Dand and Panjwaii were taking additional security precautions Monday, a military spokesman for Task Force Kandahar said. The measures were designed to try to prevent escapees from fleeing to the two districts near Kandahar City, where Canada still has about 2,000 combat troops deployed. Their combat mission is to end in July.

The latest spectacular flight from Sarpoza will once again bring into sharp focus weaknesses in the Afghan government in the south. The jailbreak is also likely to seriously complicate security for Afghan and NATO forces across the south.

Coalition forces had made great progress on the battlefield in the past year, largely eliminating the Taliban as a military threat in its traditional homeland in Kandahar and neighboring Helmand province. In recent months the Taliban have switched tactics, concentrating mainly on blowing up soft targets and assassinating Afghans who work for or with the government.

A small number of Canadian troops and government officials including Corrections Canada officers are still based in Kandahar City. They are to continue working out of a joint base with American troops near the centre of the capital until sometime in June.

With files from Reuters


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