- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 11, 2003

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — Forty-one Taliban militants escaped from a southern Afghanistan prison by digging a 30-foot-long tunnel and with apparent help from officials, regional leaders said yesterday.

The escaped convicts — including several Taliban commanders and the brother of former Taliban Defense Minister, Mullah Ubaidullah — disappeared late Friday from a high-security prison in the city of Kandahar, said Yousaf Pashtoon, the governor of Kandahar province.

The prisoners were among 54 arrested in recent months during fighting between Afghan government forces and insurgents. Kandahar was the stronghold of Afghanistan’s former hard-line Islamic Taliban regime, ousted by a U.S.-led military operation in late 2001.

Two government officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said five prison officials were missing. Mr. Pashtoon said an investigation had been started to determine the role the five might have played in the escape.

“The Taliban dug a 30-foot tunnel and initial investigations indicate that they were working on it for the past month,” Mr. Pashtoon said.

Meanwhile in northern Afghanistan, Afghan soldiers piled onto tanks and slowly withdrew from the battlefield yesterday after skirmishes briefly disrupted a truce between rival warlords.

Commanders loyal to northern Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum said “sporadic shooting” had been reported in the region late Friday, but that it had stopped.

Gen. Abdul Sabur, top commander of Gen. Dostum’s arch rival, Atta Muhammad, said the violence late Friday was more serious, with battles taking place in two locations west of Mazar-e-Sharif. However, he said the fighting ended after a few hours.

The withdrawal was part of a peace agreement that was reached Thursday with help from Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali and British Ambassador Ron Nash.

The fighting started Wednesday and most of it occurred about 12 miles west of Mazar-e-Sharif, home to 1.5 million people and the scene of some of the bloodiest battles in the U.S.-led war to oust the Taliban.

It was not immediately clear what sparked the violence. A government spokesman in Kabul said it was most likely over land disputes or access to water — the cause of repeated clashes in the past two years.

The United Nations said fighting earlier in the week resulted in “high numbers of casualties,” but did not have precise figures. Although one side said more than 60 died, the other said it was fewer.

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