KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) -- Taliban militants dug a lengthy tunnel underground and into the main jail in Kandahar city and whisked out more than 450 prisoners, most of whom were Taliban fighters, officials and insurgents said Monday.
The massive overnight jailbreak in Afghanistan's second-largest city underscores the Afghan government's continuing weakness in the south despite an influx of international troops, funding and advisers. Kandahar city, in particular, has been a focus of the international effort to establish a strong Afghan government presence in former Taliban strongholds.
The 1,200-inmate Sarposa Prison has been part of that plan. The facility has undergone security upgrades and tightened procedures following a brazen 2008 Taliban attack that freed 900 prisoners. Afghan government officials and their NATO backers have regularly said that the prison has vastly improved security since that attack.
But on Sunday night, about 475 prisoners streamed out of a tunnel that had been dug into the facility and disappeared into Kandahar city, prison supervisor Ghulam Dastagir Mayar said. He said the majority of the missing were Taliban militants.
"This is a blow," presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said. "A prison break of this magnitude of course points to a vulnerability." He did not provide details on the incident, saying that the investigation had just started.
The prison break also weakens the argument that the international troops are making good progress in handing over more responsibility for security to Afghan forces, which will eventually enable the coalition to leave. President Barack Obama plans to start drawing down forces in July.
The Kandahar escape is the latest in a series of high-profile Taliban operations that show the insurgency is fighting back strongly against the surge of U.S. and NATO forces. Over the past year, tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO reinforcements routed the Taliban from many of their southern strongholds, captured leading figures and destroyed weapons caches.
The militants have responded with major attacks across the nation as the spring fighting season has kicked off. In the past two weeks, Taliban agents have launched attacks from inside the Defense Ministry, a Kandahar city police station and a shared Afghan-U.S. military base in the east. In neighboring Helmand province on Saturday, a gunman assassinated the former top civilian chief of Marjah district, where U.S. Marines started the renewed push into the south. The victim, Abdul Zahir, was also deputy of the provincial peace council.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said insurgents dug the 1,050-foot (320-meter) tunnel to Sarposa Prison over five months, bypassing government checkpoints and major roads. The diggers finally poked through to the prison cells Sunday night, and the inmates were ushered through the tunnel to freedom by three prisoners who had been informed of the plan, Mujahid said in a statement.
He said more than 500 inmates were freed, and that about 100 of them were Taliban commanders. The prisoners were led through the tunnel over four and a half hours, with the final inmates exiting around 3:30 a.m., all without drawing the attention of prison guards, Mujahid said. The insurgents said they then used a number of vehicles to shuttle the escaped convicts to secure locations.
Four of those who escaped were provincial-level Taliban commanders, said Qari Yousef Ahmadi, another Taliban spokesman
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.
A man who Taliban spokesmen said was one of the inmates who helped organize the escape from the inside said a group of inmates obtained copies of the keys to the cells ahead of time.
"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 get them out quietly. Abdullah spoke by phone on a number supplied by a Taliban spokesman. His account could not be immediately verified.
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 only be reached by passing through multiple checkpoints and gates.
An Afghan government official who is 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.
The area outside the prison was swarming with security forces - both Afghan and American - after the prison break. Many of the international troops were focused on a house nearby the prison - perhaps an indicator that it was the starting point for the tunnel. Police mounted a search operation Monday to recapture the prisoners and Omar said 13 had been caught by midday.
Asked how the tunnel was dug without anyone noticing, Wesa said only that the incident was still under investigation.
In the 2008 attack, dozens of militants on motorbikes and two suicide bombers assaulted the prison. One suicide bomber set off an explosives-laden tanker truck at the prison gate while a second bomber blew up an escape route through a back wall. About 900 inmates escaped, including 400 Taliban fighters.
Vogt reported from Kabul. Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez contributed to this report from Kabul.