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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Taliban Breach Afghan Prison; Hundreds Free find out @smarterhiphop

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Taliban leaders carried out an audacious plot on Monday to free nearly 500 fighters from southernAfghanistan’s largest prison, leading them through a tunnel dug over more than five months and equipped with electricity and air pipes, which suggested that the insurgents remained formidable and wily opponents despite recent setbacks.

The plan was so closely held that one young Taliban fighter who got out said he knew nothing of it until a fellow inmate tugged his sleeve to wake him in the night and led him to the three-foot-wide tunnel, which ran more than half a mile from a hole in a cell’s floor, under security posts, tall concrete walls and a highway, and came up in a nearby house. From there, a waiting car took the fighter a few miles away, where he hailed a taxi to safety.
“I was just praying to God that he would free me,” said the fighter, Allah Mohammed Agha, 22, recounting his escape from Sarposa Prison, where he had been held for 28 days. “Last night was the night that my dream was made true.” He spoke by phone from Spinbaldak, near the Pakistani border.
The Afghan government called the breach a disaster. The prison break called into question the extent of the gains made against the Taliban in 18 months of hard fighting in Kandahar Province, and whether any progress would be sustainable once NATO troops began to reduce their numbers as planned this summer, members of Parliament, tribal leaders and Western officials said in interviews.
Some worried that the jailbreak might strengthen the Taliban in the coming weeks as the spring fighting season began. Having so many fighters back in circulation — possibly including hard-core commanders — also threatened to undermine efforts to bring Taliban fighters over to the government side, Afghan officials and former Taliban said.
There is no doubt that the incident demonstrated the ability of the Taliban to organize such an elaborate operation, even after they were driven largely underground in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, and despite police and prison guards, prison visits by NATO mentors, and sophisticated NATO surveillance in Kandahar.
The prison break comes after four recent attacks by the Taliban, in which they used suicide bombers, often disguised as police officers or soldiers, to penetrate secure buildings, including an Afghan army corps’ headquarters in Laghman Province and the Ministry of Defense headquartersin the capital, Kabul.
Members of Parliament and others were scathing about the lapses. Some questioned whether the prison guards or police officers were bribed not to notice the tunnel’s construction.
“It’s a big achievement for the Taliban and shows a big failure and weakness in the government,” said Muhammad Naiem Lalay Hamidzai, a Parliament member from Kandahar and chairman of the internal security committee.
“The Taliban gain two things from this jailbreak,” he said. “First, coming after the incidents in Kunduz, Laghman, Kandahar and at the Ministry of Defense headquarters, it sends a message that they can do whatever they want, even at the heart of the most secure and important jail, and it allows them to strengthen their ranks with more manpower.”
The Afghan government was reeling Monday as details of the escape emerged. “This is bad news for the government and the people of Afghanistan,” the spokesman for PresidentHamid Karzai, Waheed Omar, said at a news conference. “This shows a vulnerability on the part of the government.” He called the prison break a disaster.
One unexplained question was why the cells where prisoners were supposed to sleep were left open so that they could make their way to the cell with the tunnel. It also seemed that none of the guards checked on the prisoners during the night, even though Afghan intelligence officials and Western military officials said that there had been intelligence about the possibility of a security breach.
“This is absolutely the fault of the ignorance of the security forces,” said the Kandahar provincial governor, Tooryalai Wesa. “This was not the work of a day, a week or a month of activities. This was actually months of work they spent to dig and free their men.”
Clearly embarrassed, Afghan officials had little else to say, other than to acknowledge that the prison break showed unexpected weaknesses in security. Since the Taliban engineereda major break at the same prison in 2008 — freeing 1,200 prisoners — Canadian forces have mentored the Afghans who run the prison and NATO countries have spent several million dollars upgrading and training the prison administration, according to a Western official in Kabul.
“There are a lot of people asking questions today,” said a NATO officer at the coalition’s headquarters in Kabul.
There was no official comment from the NATO command. Two Western officials described the break as “at least partially an inside job,” but both said they could not be named because of the delicacy of the situation.
Of the 488 men who escaped, fewer than 20 were from the criminal section of the prison; the rest were security detainees believed to be Taliban fighters and commanders.
An escapee, who asked not to be identified, said that among those freed were two shadow governors and 14 shadow district governors. The Taliban have a shadow government that has varying influence in different provinces.
However, Muhammad Qasim Hashimzai, a deputy justice minister, said that the government did not yet know who had escaped. “The detainees included all kinds of people,” he said, and he promised to have more information on Tuesday.
Mr. Wesa, the Kandahar provincial governor, said a manhunt was on and that 26 escapees had been captured by late afternoon.
The security section of the prison was eerily empty on Monday when reporters were shown around. Prisoners’ belongings were strewn about, but appeared heaped in the cell with the tunnel in an effort to obscure the entrance. A second tunnel branched off to the criminal side of the prison, according to the warden, Gen. Ghulam Dastagir Mayar, and Mr. Wesa.
Now, with so many Taliban back in the fight, it will be even harder to convince Taliban fighters that they will be safe if they defect to the government, a former Taliban commander said.
“The prison break will slow down the peace process,” said Mullah Noorul Aziz Agha, a Taliban member who recently decided to lay down his arms and work with the government. “I was talking to Taliban on the phone to try to persuade them to come over, but now with this, how can we promise them that we can offer them security and protection?”

Taimoor Shah reported from Kandahar, and Alissa J. Rubin from Kabul, Afghanistan. Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Kabul.