Hundreds of prisoners escaped from a jail in Afghanistan's south on Monday through a tunnel dug by Taliban insurgents, officials said.
The daring escape was described as a "disaster" for the Afghan government and a setback for foreign forces planning to start a gradual withdrawal within months.
The militants tunneled at least 480 inmates out of the main prison in Kandahar overnight, whisking them through a 1,000-foot-long underground passage they had dug over months, officials and insurgents told The Associated Press.
Officials at Sarposa prison in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, say they only discovered the breach at about 4 a.m., a half hour after the Taliban said they had gotten all the prisoners out.
The militants began digging the tunnel about five months ago from a house within shooting distance of the prison guard towers. It was not immediately clear whether they lived in the house while they dug. They meticulously plotted the tunnel's course around police checkpoints and major roads, the insurgent group said in a statement.
The diggers finally broke through to the prison cells around 11 p.m. Sunday night, and a handful of inmates who knew of the plan unlocked cells and ushered hundreds of inmates to freedom without a shot being fired.
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 centimeters thick.
Collusion by prison guards?
A man who claimed he 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, but his comments suggested possible collusion by prison guards.
"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 they woke the inmates up four or five at a time to sneak them out quietly. The AP reached Abdullah on a phone number supplied by a Taliban spokesman. His account could not immediately be verified.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's chief spokesman told a news conference the incident, in which many Taliban commanders were said to have escaped, exposed serious vulnerabilities in the Afghan government.
The city's police mounted a massive search operation for the escaped convicts. They shot and killed two inmates who tried to evade capture and re-arrested another 26, said Tooryalai Wesa, the provincial governor.
"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," spokesman Waheed Omer said.
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.
Government officials declined to provide details on any of the escaped inmates or say whether any were considered high-level commanders.
The highest-profile Taliban inmates would likely not be held at Sarposa. The U.S. keeps detainees it considers a threat at a facility outside of Bagram Air Base in eastern Afghanistan. Other key Taliban prisoners are held by the Afghan government in a high-security wing of the main prison in Kabul.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said the military command in Afghanistan had "not been asked by the Afghans to provide any assistance" such as intelligence help in looking for the escaped inmates.
Asked if the incident would prompt a rethinking or delay in the planned June turnover of the Parwan detention operation in the east to Afghans, Lapan said: "I think it's still too soon to tell. I have not gotten any indications of that, but it's too soon to tell."
The 1,200-inmate Sarposa prison has been part of a plan to bolster the government's presence in Kandahar. The facility underwent security upgrades and tightened procedures after a brazen 2008 Taliban attack freed 900 prisoners. 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.
Afghan government officials and their NATO backers have repeatedly asserted that the prison has vastly improved security since that attack.
There are guard towers at each corner of the prison compound, which is illuminated at night and protected by a ring of concrete barriers topped with razor wire. The entrance can be reached only by passing through multiple checkpoints and gates.
An Afghan government official familiar with Sarposa prison said that while the external security has been greatly improved, the internal controls were not as strong. He said the Taliban prisoners in Sarposa were very united and would rally together to make demands from their jailers for better treatment or more privileges. He spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Kandahar holds particular importance for the Taliban, which seized the city in 1994 as it began its campaign to take over Afghanistan toward the end of the country's brutal civil war. The Taliban held onto its stronghold city long after U.S. and NATO forces drove the insurgents from power in the country, and a recent wave of assassinations shows they still have strength there.
The Taliban statement said it took four and a half hours for all the prisoners to clear the tunnel, with the final inmates emerging into the house at 3:30 a.m. They then used a number of vehicles to shuttle the escaped convicts to secure locations.
Kandahar has been the focus of the U.S.-led military campaign over the past year, with tens of thousands of U.S. and Afghan troops launching offensives around Kandahar city.
The jailbreak also drew comparisons to a similar incident three years earlier. In 2008, Taliban insurgents blew open the gate of the Kandahar prison at night, allowing up to 1,000 inmates, including hundreds of Taliban insurgents, to escape.
Days after that escape, hundreds of Taliban fighters seized villages in districts close to Kandahar and appeared to threaten the city itself, with the government sending more than 1,000 extra troops from the north as reinforcements. Nearly 100 Taliban fighters were killed in the ensuing battle.