The tunnel that allowed 488 Taliban prisoners to crawl 1,000ft to freedom

Remarkable escape from 'high-security' jail in Afghanistan

A huge manhunt was under way yesterday after 488 Taliban prisoners broke out of a high-security jail in southern Afghanistan, via a 1,000ft tunnel that snaked under checkpoints, razor-wire-tipped walls and a major highway before emerging in a house outside the perimeter.

Described by the Afghan government as a "disaster that should not have happened", the escape has made a mockery of the national security forces barely three months before Nato troops are due to hand over control of several parts of the country. Inside help is almost certainly to blame.

According to a triumphant Taliban spokesman, insurgents on the outside spent five months excavating the tunnel before finally breaking into one of the cells late on Sunday night, using car-jacks to crack through the final layer of concrete.

Over the next four-and-a-half hours, they whisked the 488 prisoners – including 13 common criminals – held in the political wing of Sarpoza jail to freedom, shuttling them away in waiting cars, while a team of suicide bombers stood ready to distract the prison guards.

As it turned out, there was little need. The warders only discovered that the inmates were gone at sunrise on Monday, half an hour after the last detainee had set off down the tunnel. To add insult to injury, sources in Kandahar said that the tunnellers used refurbishments to irrigation canals that were being funded by the US to conceal their digging.

"This is a blow," government spokesman Waheed Omar said. "A prison break of this magnitude of course points to a vulnerability." He said the government would investigate "what exactly happened" but analysts said there was every indication of an inside job, and this was backed up by a statement by one man who claimed yesterday to be one of the escapees.

"There were four or five of us who knew that our friends were digging a tunnel from the outside," explained Mohammad Abdullah, who said he had been an inmate for two years after being caught with a stockpile of guns. "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."

Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar, blamed the prison guards. "This is absolutely the fault of the ignorance of the security forces," he said. "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." Another official added that bombs left in the tunnel by the Taliban were hampering the investigation into what had happened.

It is not the first time inmates have escaped en masse from Sarpoza: almost 1,000 broke out during a Taliban attack in 2008. Following that incident, coalition forces in Kandahar spent millions of pounds upgrading the prison, building new guard towers, expanding the perimeter and strengthening cell doors and windows. Then, as now, inside help was suspected.

The jailbreak is the biggest in a series of propaganda coups this year for the Taliban, designed to undermine the credibility of Afghanistan's security forces and sap their morale ahead of the handover. But the escape could also have serious implications for the fighting season that is expected to start in the next few weeks.

Many are already predicting the bloodiest spring in a decade, as Nato troops try to cling to the gains they claim to have made in Kandahar since thousands of reinforcements poured in as part of US President Barack Obama's surge.

That forecast seems all the more likely now the Taliban's ranks have swollen so dramatically. Following the 2008 jailbreak, when fewer insurgents escaped than yesterday, the Afghan government was forced to deploy an extra 1,000 soldiers to Kandahar as hundreds of rebel fighters swarmed into villages, and seemed to threaten Kandahar City itself.

Kandahar holds particular importance for the Taliban, which seized the city in 1994 as it began its campaign to take over Afghanistan towards the end of the nation's brutal civil war. The Taliban held on to its stronghold city long after US and Nato forces drove the insurgents from power in the country, and a recent wave of assassinations shows they still have strength there.

Police showed reporters the roughly hewn hole that was punched through the cement floor of the prison cell. It was about 3ft in diameter.

Propaganda victories for the Taliban this year

* 18 April An insurgent dressed in an army uniform killed two people and wounded seven after infiltrating the ministry of defence in Kabul.

* 16 April A man posing as a soldier killed five Nato troops, four Afghan soldiers and an interpreter in a suicide bombing.

* 15 April A suicide bomber disguised as a policeman killed Kandahar province's chief of police.

* 14 April Three policemen were killed in a suicide bombing at a training centre in south-eastern Afghanistan.

* 7 April Six police died when militants drove an ambulance packed with explosives into a Kandahar police post.

* 19 February A Taliban gunman killed 42 Afghans, including women and children, in an attack on a bank where police were collecting their salaries.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Process Improvement Analyst (Testing)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Service Delivery Manager - Derivatives, Support,

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Delivery Manager - (Derivatives, Support...

Technical Account Manager - Java, FIX Protocol, FIX 5.0, C++

£30000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Technical Account Manager - Java,...

WPF .NET Developer

£300 - £350 per day: Harrington Starr: WPF Analyst Programmer NET, WPF, C#, M...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform