Taliban militants blew open one of Afghanistan's biggest prisons last night, setting free more than 400 insurgents and 700 criminals.
A suicide bomber drove a lorry packed full of explosives into the main gates of Kandahar prison, while teams of militants attacked the building with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
A Taliban spokesman said 30 insurgents on motorcycles and two suicide bombers were involved in the attack. Officials said almost all of the 1,150 prisoners escaped in the gun battle that ensued, including more than 400 Taliban.
Witnesses said that Taliban gunmen stormed into the jail, shooting guards as they raced to free their fellow militants.
The brother of President Hamid Karzai, Walid Karzai, said a second wave of suicide bombers then ran into the prison and blew down two of the compound's mud walls. Mr Karzai, who is the head of the provincial council, said: "All the prisoners escaped. There is no one left." The first blast, from a water tanker filled with explosives, destroyed the main gate, killing all of the guards nearby.
The prison's governor, Abdul Qadir, said: "They used a truck to blow the gate open and all of the guards have been killed and are under rubble."
A spokesman for the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force said: "There was a suicide vehicle-borne IED [improvised explosive device]. Isaf are assisting the Afghan National Police to cordon off the area. Obviously prisoners have escaped. We have reports of numbers but we are yet to confirm them."
Dozens of people are thought to have been killed and injured in the attack, which started at 9.30pm and continued into the night. Afghan troops and local police, backed by Nato troops, rushed to the scene, but they were too late to stem the exodus. A witness said: "There was nothing left. The building was destroyed. Everyone ran away." A local shopkeeper said the prisoners fled into the fruit groves that surround the jail under cover of darkness.
Kandahar is the country's second-biggest city and the jail housed criminals from all over the south. Canada has a few hundred troops stationed inside the city. There is also an American special forces base nearby, but most of the international troops are based at Kandahar Airfield, outside the city.
The attack comes as President Karzai visits Paris to appeal for more money from international donors to rebuild his shattered country. It also comes days after a massive drugs bust by British and Afghan commandos in Kandahar, which destroyed more than 236 tonnes of cannabis.
Analysts said that the jail break might have been bankrolled by the drug smugglers in revenge for the recent raid. But a spokesman for the Taliban said that militants had been planning the assault for the past two months "to release our Taliban friends". He added: "Today we succeeded." The escaped prisoners "are safe in town and they are going to their homes".
A spokesman for the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force said that it was aware of the attack, but that it had no details.
The country's prisons have been heavily criticised for the lawlessness inside their own walls. British officials in Kabul have warned that the capital's main jail risks being overrun by its inmates. There have been a series of riots where guards have lost control of entire wings for days at a time
* The Ministry of Defence confirmed last night that Britain was to deploy a few hundred extra troops to Afghanistan. The MoD also released the names of two British soldiers killed on Thursday in southern Afghanistan. L/Cpl James Bateman, 29, of Staines, Middlesex, and Pte Jeff Doherty, 20, of Southam, Warwickshire, were killed on a patrol in Helmand province.