1,000 inmates escape from Afghan prison after blast

Canadian troops search Kandahar after massive jail break

The wing of Kandahar's Sarpoza Prison, shown in 2007, where Taliban fighters and others deemed to be a threat to national security were held.

 The wing of Kandahar's Sarpoza Prison

Doug Schmidt, Canwest News Service 

KANDAHAR CITY, Afghanistan - Canadian soldiers joined allied and Afghan national security forces in a sweeping door-to-door urban hunt for hundreds of escaped prisoners Friday after the Taliban staged a daring mass breakout at Kandahar City’s Sarposa Prison.

A suicide bomber drove to the prison’s main entrance and detonated his vehicle Friday around 9:30 p.m. local time.



The massive explosion, heard across the Afghanistan’s second-largest city, destroyed the gate and a police checkpoint, burying guards under rubble and killing scores.

Witnesses said as many as 30 motorcycles then raced forward, carrying armed men firing rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and AK-47s. A second hole was blasted in a rear wall of the prison, the largest such facility in southern Afghanistan.

During the ensuing 20-minute battle inside the prison and in the city’s west side, hundreds of prisoners were able to flee.

Wali Karzai, president of Kandahar’s provincial council and the brother of President Hamid Karzai, told local reporters a short time later that all the inmates had fled. Late into the night, however, it remained unclear exactly how many escaped from the prison, which houses almost 1,200 inmates, including about 400 Taliban militants.

Some prison officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, estimated that as many as 800 prisoners managed to escape, while an unknown number were killed in a gun battle between police and Taliban fighters inside the jail.

“I think scores of others are caught up inside,” one prison official told Reuters.

The blast caused an unknown number of casualties among the guards, prison director Abdul Qadir told Reuters.

“They (Taliban) used a truck to blow the gate open and all of the guards (at the gate) have been killed and are under rubble,” he said by telephone. As he spoke, bursts of gunfire could be heard in the background.

A Taliban spokesman said the group was claiming responsibility.

Rockets were also fired at nearby Camp Nathan Smith, home of the Canadian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team, but witnesses said they fell far short.

Members of a Canadian Forces company protecting the team were among hundreds of security forces who responded to the daring attack, which came just days after Kandahar province’s police chief, Brig.-Gen. Sayed Agha Saqib, told reporters here that the security situation in the city was good.

“We believe that the situation is under control,” Joint Task Force Afghanistan spokesman Maj. Jay Janzen told reporters at Kandahar Airfield several hours after the brazen attack.

A security cordon had been established and a massive overnight search operation was launched in the city.

Canadian military sources could not initially confirm witness reports that Canadian tanks were rolling through the city.

The Canadian military’s Janzen said International Security Assistance Force troops had helped establish a “security perimeter” in the area as the search continues for the many fugitives.

The stunningly successful attack comes at a time when Taliban insurgent activity is flaring up in Afghanistan’s volatile south, where most of Canada’s 2,500 troops in the country are deployed.

“We believe things are improving,” said Janzen. “We’re working hard with our Afghan allies to bring stability to the region.”

The U.S. military has handed over an unspecified number of suspected Taliban fighters to Afghan custody under a program agreed to last year to transfer all Afghan prisoners from U.S. detention.

The U.S. military has arrested thousands of suspected Taliban and al-Qaida militants since invading Afghanistan in 2001 to help topple the Taliban government.

Last month, some 200 Taliban suspects being held at Sarposa, some of them without trial for more than two years, staged a week-long hunger strike before a parliamentary delegation promised their cases would be reviewed.

The number of al-Qaida-backed Taliban attacks has increased since 2006 and the prison raid ranks as one of the biggest.

The militants tried to assassinate President Hamid Karzai in April when he was attending a military parade near the presidential palace in Kabul. They are active mostly in southern and eastern areas near the border with Pakistan.

Canada, through the Provincial Reconstruction Team, is currently involved in the physical restoration of the mud-walled Sarposa and the training of its guards.

Friday’s attack came a day after international donors in Paris pledged more than $20 billion for Afghanistan’s development and security projects.

The resurgence of Taliban comes despite the presence of more than 60,000 foreign troops, including 2,500 Canadian troops, under the command of NATO and the U.S. military, as well as more than 150,000 government forces.

Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, chair of the Senate’s defence committee, said the prison break raises disturbing questions about the conduct of coalition troops in Afghanistan.

He questioned how Canadian or other troops with the International Security Assistance Force failed to detect, with night-vision equipment, the after-dark movements of the attackers.

Kenny, whose committee recently returned from Kandahar, said the attack clearly shows there are not enough soldiers in southern Afghanistan.

His committee released a report this week, calling for an additional 4,000 NATO troops in the southern region.

Also on Friday, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates pressed fellow alliance defence ministers to contribute more troops to Afghanistan, but failed to get firm commitments.

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