Afghanistan: Taliban 'had inside help' for jailbreak

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Afghanistan's justice minister has said the 488 inmates who escaped from Kandahar's main prison through a tunnel must have had inside help.

Habibullah Ghaleb told President Hamid Karzai that much of the blame for the Taliban-led breakout lay with local security forces and foreign troops.

Mr Ghaleb said the house where the 360m-long tunnel began was searched 10 weeks ago but nothing was reported.

Only 71 prisoners have been recaptured since a manhunt was launched on Monday.

The governor of Sarposa jail, Gen Ghulam Dastgir, said many of the escapees were likely to have fled to safe havens in neighbouring Pakistan.

The Taliban said 541 prisoners had escaped through the tunnel, and that 106 of them were commanders - four of them former provincial chiefs.

'Big blow'

The political wing of the jail, where the 1m (3ft) wide tunnel emerged on Sunday night, was like a compound, Gen Dastgir said, with prisoners free to move between cells and no locks on individual doors.

But Mr Ghaleb said there had been failings: the inmates of each cell should not have been able to access the room where the tunnel began, he said, while the "big convoy" of vehicles used to move the prisoners from the house should have been spotted from the prison.

"The mass escape of the prisoners from one tunnel indicates inside help and facilitation from the prison," he said in an initial report.

Afghan prison escapes

  • June 2008: More than 900 prisoners escape from Sarposa prison in Kandahar after a suicide bomber blasted open the gates
  • July 2010: 19 prisoners escape after a blast at a prison in Farah province
  • November 2009: 12 prisoners escape after tunnelling out of a jail from their cells in Farah

Mohammad Abdullah, one of the inmates at Sarposa who the Taliban claimed had helped organise the escape, said "friends" had managed to obtain copies of the keys to the cells beforehand, suggesting collusion by the guards.

Mr Ghaleb also criticised Canadian and US troops who have been responsible for security improvements to the prison. He asked how they had failed to notice the tunnel was being dug underneath their feet.

"The house where the tunnel was found was searched by security forces two-and-a-half months ago," he added. "Earth or soil dug out of the tunnel must have been moved and should not have been missed."

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told the BBC that they had "proper digging equipment" and the "support of skilled professionals".

He said earth from the tunnel, which took five months to complete, was taken away from the house gradually and "sold at the market".

An National Directorate of Security officer investigating the escape, Gen Tahir Mohmand, said prison officials had been warned several times recently that there were reports the Taliban were planning some sort of operation.

"We had some clues that the Taliban were busy in some kind of plan to get their prisoners out."

'Shortcomings'

The governor of Kandahar province, Tooryalai Wesa, told the BBC he did not know if there had been any specific warnings from the NDS.

"I didn't see something like that. The reports were different. The reports were vague. There was no report about digging a tunnel in Kandahar."

But he admitted there had been "some shortcomings on our side".

Recaptured prisoners in Kandahar on Tuesday Some of the recaptured prisoners were shown to reporters in Kandahar on Tuesday

"These things happen - we have examples from other countries," he added. "But these people cannot run. We have all their data, and it has been passed onto neighbouring countries, districts and provinces."

A senior security official in Kandahar told the BBC: "This prison break is a big blow in many ways."

"Now that 106 Taliban field commanders are out on in the open, our lives, those of our officers and more importantly people who helped the government are at risk," he added. "Unless people are held accountable and a thorough investigation is done, we will not get to the bottom of it."

The BBC's Bilal Sarwary in Kandahar says the Sarposa prison break is a huge embarrassment for the Afghan government, as it comes less than two weeks after Kandahar's police chief was killed by a suicide bomber inside his heavily defended compound.

In June 2008, the Taliban orchestrated the escape of more than 900 prisoners at Sarposa, including hundreds of militants, in an attack that killed 15 guards. A suicide bomber was used to blast open the gates.

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