KANDAHAR, Afghanistan | Taliban militants tunneled at least 480 inmates out of the main prison in southern Afghanistan overnight Sunday, whisking them through a 1,000-foot-long underground passage they had dug over months, officials and insurgents said Monday.
Officials at Sarposa prison in the city of 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, and several inmates who knew of the plan unlocked cells and ushered hundreds of inmates to freedom without a shot being fired.
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.
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 4½ 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 several vehicles to shuttle the escaped convicts to secure locations.
Government officials corroborated parts of the Taliban account. They confirmed the tunnel was dug from the nearby house and the prisoners had somehow gotten out of their locked cells and disappeared into the warm Kandahar night.
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