Afghan security forces said Tuesday they had captured 65 out of at least 480 inmates who escaped from a prison through a tunnel dug by Taliban insurgents.
The daring escape Sunday night was described as a "disaster" for the Afghan government and a setback for foreign forces planning to start a gradual withdrawal within months.
Security forces "recaptured 65 of the prisoners who escaped from Kandahar Prison," Zalmai Ayobi provincial governor spokesman told NBC News.
"Afghan National Security and ISAF forces have launched huge search operation right after the prisoners escaped and have massive civilian support and positive results," he added.
Security forces have the biometric data of all the escapees and it was being used to identify the escapees, NBC News reported.
The militants dug a 1,000-foot-long underground passage over several months, officials and insurgents told The Associated Press.
Officials at Sarposa prison in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, said 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 dug the tunnel 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 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, and a handful of inmates who knew of the plan unlocked cells and ushered hundreds of inmates to freedom without a shot being fired.
The Taliban said in a statement that 541 prisoners escaped through the tunnel. Reuters photographs showed a hole, several feet deep, cut into the concrete floor of one of the cells.
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.
Government officials started to piece through the details of the escape Tuesday and place blame. Justice Minister Habibullah Ghalib sent a formal letter to President Hamid Karzai acknowledging that prison officials or guards likely acted as accomplices but also saying that Afghan and international security forces should have detected the plot.
"The escape of all the prisoners from one tunnel ... shows that collaborators inside the prison somehow provided an opportunity," Ghalib said in the letter.
However, he also noted that Afghan police searched the compound from which the tunnel originated about two and a half months before the prison break and he said that Canadian and American forces have been responsible for security improvements to the prison. A full investigation is under way.
An intelligence officer who is involved in the investigation, Gen. Tahir Mohmand, said that they had warned prison officials a number of times recently that they had reports that the Taliban were planning some sort of operation involving the prison.
"We had some clues that the Taliban were busy in some kind of plan to get their prisoners out," he said.
More details came from those who had been caught.
Samiullah Jan, who had served 13 months of a 14 month sentence, said he was woken up at midnight and escorted to the tunnel, which was lighted and even had a pipe running through it that they were told was pushing out oxygen to help them breathe.
"When we got out of the tunnel they let us go and said 'Now you can go home. Go wherever you want.' I moved around a bit but I didn't have any place to go, and then the soldiers found me," Jan said. He spoke from his cell at the intelligence agency's detention center in Kandahar.
The prison break also came less than two weeks after the Kandahar police chief was killed by a suicide bomber inside his heavily defended office compound.
"How can we trust or rely on a government that can't protect the police chief inside the police headquarters and can't keep prisoners in the prison?" asked Islamullah Agha Bashir, who sells washing machines and other appliances in Kandahar city. "Last night while we were eating dinner I told my two sons not to go out as much because I am afraid that now when the morale of the Taliban is high, they will attack more."
Kandahar Gov. Tooryalai Wesa said that residents should not be worried.
"The security situation in Kandahar will not get worse. I have confidence in my intelligence officers and our supporters," Wesa said.
Kandahar city has been a major focus of the international troop surge over the past year, with NATO officials saying that establishing security there will be key to securing the region. Last summer, Afghan forces created a ring of checkpoints around the city and started pushing out into Taliban areas to establish the government's authority before the rise in attacks that usually comes in the spring.
The Taliban have responding by starting off the spring fighting season with a string of operations apparently designed to undermine trust in the capabilities of the Afghan government. Within the past two weeks, Taliban agents have also launched deadly attacks from inside the Defense Ministry and a shared Afghan-U.S. military base in eastern Laghman province.
The attacks cast doubt on the readiness of the Afghan government to take over security for parts of the country as planned, threatening the exit strategy for the country's allies eager to bring troops home.
NATO does continue to have tactical successes, announcing Tuesday that it had killed a key al-Qaida operative in Afghanistan in an airstrike.
NATO identified the man killed in the April 13 airstrike in Dangam district of eastern Kunar province as Abu Hafs al-Najdi, also known as Abdul Ghani. The alliance said he was a regional commander in charge of suicide bombings and cash flow. The strike also killed a number of other insurgents, including another al-Qaida leader known as Waqas.
But Afghans tend to focus on the continuing danger they face in their daily lives — either as government workers who may be targeted or just that they could be a bystander when a suicide bomb goes off.
In eastern Paktia province on Tuesday, the provincial governor narrowly escaped an apparent assassination attempt by insurgents. A roadside bomb exploded just behind a vehicle taking Gov. Juma Khan Hamdard to his office, said Rohallah Samon, a spokesman.
Hamdard was not hurt, but three policemen who were in a chase vehicle were slightly injured, Samon said.