The Associated Press
updated 10/11/2003 5:35:21 AM ET 2003-10-11T09:35:21

Forty-one Taliban prisoners tunneled out of jail in southern Afghanistan in a dramatic escape that is embarrassing for the government and presents yet another security headache in the troubled region.

InsertArt(2038728)THE BREAK-OUT from the main jail in the volatile southern city of Kandahar occurred on Friday night, the city’s security chief General Salem told Reuters. He said all the prisoners were from one barracks of the jail, which houses some 400 prisoners.

“Last night, in the middle of the night, about 40 prisoners escaped through a 30-meter tunnel,” he said. “They included some important Taliban — one was the brother of Mawlavi Obaidullah.”

Obaidullah was Taliban defense minister and has evaded capture since the hardline Islamists were overthrown by U.S.-led forces two years ago. In June, he was named as part of a 10-man leadership council by shadowy Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Taliban spokesman Haji Abdul Latif told Reuters there were a total of 41 escapees. He said Obaidullah’s bother was Mawlavi Abdullah.

Kandahar governor Yusuf Pashtun said five or six of the escapees were “important” Taliban figures, including Obaidullah’s brother and another named Aziz Agha, who had carried out many attacks in recent months.

He said the prisoners, who had been kept in chains, must have had the assistance of prison guards as they had tunneled out an estimated 15 truckloads of earth.

“They must have had help,” he told Reuters.

Latif insisted the prisoners acted alone.

TALIBAN BIRTHPLACE

Kandahar province, which borders Pakistan, was the birthplace of the Taliban and has been the scene of many recent guerrilla attacks that have curtailed aid and reconstruction.

In late August, officials said the jail on the outskirts of the city was holding 50 to 60 “political inmates,” a term usually used to describe Taliban members.

Some of that group were interviewed at the time by Reuters and all said they came from neighboring Pakistan, which Kabul accuses of sheltering Taliban guerrillas and leaders.

The Taliban have been blamed for a surge in violence across Afghanistan since August in which more than 300 people have died, including aid workers, government soldiers and police, U.S. troops and many guerrillas.

News of the escape comes days after Karzai and the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad denied reports that former Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil had been freed from U.S. custody for facilitating talks with Taliban officials in Kandahar.

A government official in Kandahar, who did not want to be named, said there could have been a connection between Muttawakil and the escape.

He said Muttawakil was briefly released on September 27 and visited his home in Kandahar and on the following day met Taliban officials in the Tor Kotal area of the province on behalf of the Americans. He gave no other details.

The United States is leading a 11,500-strong foreign force in Afghanistan force pursuing remnants of the Taliban and the allied al-Qaida network, which is blamed for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

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