KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Taliban militants dug a lengthy tunnel underground and into the main jail in Kandahar city and whisked out more than 450 prisoners, most of whom were Taliban fighters, officials and insurgents said Monday.
The massive overnight jailbreak in Afghanistan's second-largest city underscores the Afghan government's continuing weakness in the south despite an influx of international troops, funding and advisers. Kandahar city, in particular, has been a focus of the international effort to establish a strong Afghan government presence in former Taliban strongholds.
The 1,200-inmate Sarposa Prison has been part of that plan. The facility has undergone security upgrades and tightened procedures following a brazen 2008 Taliban attack that freed 900 prisoners. Afghan government officials and their NATO backers have regularly said that the prison has vastly improved security since that attack.
But on Sunday night, about 475 prisoners streamed out of a tunnel that had been dug into the facility and disappeared into Kandahar city, prison supervisor Ghulam Dastagir Mayar said. He said the majority of the missing were Taliban militants.
"This is a blow," presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said. "A prison break of this magnitude of course points to a vulnerability." He did not provide details on the incident, saying that the investigation had just started.
The prison break also weakens the argument that the international troops are making good progress in handing over more responsibility for security to Afghan forces, which will eventually enable the coalition to leave. President Barack Obama plans to start drawing down forces in July.
The Kandahar escape is the latest in a series of high-profile Taliban operations that show the insurgency is fighting back strongly against the surge of U.S. and NATO forces. Over the past year, tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO reinforcements routed the Taliban from many of their southern strongholds, captured leading figures and destroyed weapons caches.
The militants have responded with major attacks across the nation as the spring fighting season has kicked off. In the past two weeks, Taliban agents have launched attacks from inside the Defense Ministry, a Kandahar city police station and a shared Afghan-U.S. military base in the east. In neighboring Helmand province on Saturday, a gunman assassinated the former top civilian chief of Marjah district, where U.S. Marines started the renewed push into the south. The victim, Abdul Zahir, was also deputy of the provincial peace council.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said insurgents dug the 1,050-foot (320-meter) tunnel to Sarposa Prison over five months, bypassing government checkpoints and major roads. The diggers finally poked through to the prison cells Sunday night, and the inmates were ushered through the tunnel to freedom by three prisoners who had been informed of the plan, Mujahid said in a statement.
He said the inmates were freed, and that about 100 of them were Taliban commanders. The prisoners were led through the tunnel over four and a half hours, with the final inmates exiting around 3:30 a.m., all without drawing the attention of prison guards, Mujahid said. The insurgents said they then used a number of vehicles to shuttle the escaped convicts to secure locations.