Afghanistan's second city was in a state of emergency yesterday as police and armed forces struggled to co-ordinate an international hunt for more than 1,150 prisoners who broke out of jail in an astonishing Taliban attack.
At least 750 criminals and 400 Taliban inmates escaped on Friday night after a suicide bomber drove a water tanker full of explosives into the main gate of the prison in Kandahar. A second suicide bomber ran round the back of the compound and detonated a device against the prison wall on the other side, blasting a second escape route, while gunmen stormed into the ruins to attack the guards.
Officials said all the inmates escaped during the attack on Friday night. The Taliban claimed 30 men on motorbikes were involved in the assault.
At least nine guards were killed and 12 more were injured as militants bombarded the prison buildings with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-gun fire.
Nato troops hunkered down in a nearby base when they first heard the blasts, and by the time they arrived to try and secure the site with Afghan forces, all the inmates had gone.
Police launched house-to-house searches yesterday in a desperate effort to round up the fugitives, but security officials fear most of them are beyond capture. By last night, not one had been arrested.
Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, is less than two hours' drive from the Pakistan border, where the Taliban have safe havens beyond the reach of Nato operations. Most of the 400 militants who escaped are battle-hardened veterans of the seven-year fight with international and Afghan forces.
The head of Afghanistan's prison service, Amir Mohammed Jamshed, said: "We don't think there were any big commanders. We are still looking into exactly who escaped."
Top-level commanders are usually jailed separately, in US military detention centres, or in the country's main prison in Kabul. But officials fear the footsoldiers will provide a welcome boost to the insurgents, who have suffered heavy casualties in recent years in fighting across southern Afghanistan.
The Taliban spokesman, Qari Yusef Ahmadi, said: "People are rejoicing and sacrificing sheep. They are welcoming our people into their homes."
Nato officials insisted they were ready to help the Afghan security forces with the search operation. And the Afghan agencies were finding it difficult to orchestrate a response yesterday, with police, soldiers and intelligence officials all competing for the lead.
Border guards were put on high alert, while Nato scrambled its spy planes, including unmanned drones, from nearby Kandahar Airfield, to search the desert outside the city for the missing prisoners.
Officials at the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) headquarters in Kabul insisted the attack would not boost the Taliban's battlefield capability.
The Isaf spokesman, General Carlos Brano, said: "It does not have a strategic impact. These guys who escaped from the prison are not going to change the operational tempo and they do not provide the Taliban with operational initiative."
But privately, soldiers warned it could easily lead to a surge in violence. The Canadian troops, who are the biggest international presence in the province, were braced for more attacks, which have claimed 11 lives so far this year.
The Taliban have resorted to roadside bombs, mines and suicide attacks in recent years. The extra soldiers could help them mount the sort of large-scale attacks that were more typical of 2006.
t Two British soldiers killed in southern Afghanistan have been named by the Ministry of Defence. Lance Corporal James Bateman, 29, from Staines, Middlesex, and Private Jeff Doherty, 20, from Southam, Warwickshire, both from 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, were on patrol in Helmand province when they were attacked by Taliban forces. Their deaths bring the number of soldiers from 2 Para, based in Colchester, Essex, to have died in Afghanistan this week to five, while the number of British service personnel killed in the country since the start of operations in November 2001 stands at 102.