Taliban guerrillas tunneled into the main jail in Kandahar, the southern Afghan city at the center of their fight with U.S. forces, releasing about 500 prisoners including insurgent commanders.
The militants dug a 360-meter (394-yard) tunnel from a safe house into the prison before evacuating 541 jailed fighters last night, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a phone interview. Kandahar prison director Ghulam Dastir Mayar said by phone that about 470 men escaped, “including those higher-ranking Taliban officials” who were in custody.
About 115 of the men who escaped were commanders or mid-level officials of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan’s southern provinces, notably Kandahar, Uruzgan and Helmand, Mujahid said, a number not confirmed by Mayar.
Since the Obama administration sent 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan last year, U.S.-led forces have sought to cripple the Taliban through raids that have killed “hundreds of low- and mid-level commanders,” according to an April 11 report by Bill Roggio, a U.S. analyst who runs the Long War Journal website that monitors the conflict.
U.S. officials have cited the elimination of such commanders as a key victory that has disrupted and demoralized rebel fighters.
The intensified battle in the south contributed to a 15-percent increase in civilian deaths, which reached 2,777 during 2010, the United Nations mission in Afghanistan says. In the first three months of this year, deaths among U.S.-led coalition forces fell to 108 from 135 in the same period a year ago, according to the monitoring group iCasualties.org.
“The Taliban dug the tunnel about five or six meters deep into the earth, from the west of the jail,” passing under the area’s main road, Mujahid said. “The operation to free the jihad fighters began in the middle of the night and lasted until early morning.”
In a Jan. 25 letter to U.S. troops, the top American commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, credited “hard-won progress” in Kandahar and Helmand to focused special-operations raids that “inflicted enormous losses on mid-level Taliban” leaders.