The Taliban executed a daring prison break in Kandahar early Monday morning, April 25, when at least 476 political prisoners and 125 other inmates escaped through a 1,050-ft.-long (320 m) tunnel, U.S. Army sources based in the Arghandab River Valley, just north of the restive city, tell TIME. The escape threatens security gains made over the winter and comes just weeks before the start of the traditional spring fighting season. Indeed, 60 of the escapees are believed to be from Arghandab, a battle zone key to securing Kandahar and its environs. The Arghandab prisoners were captured during intense fighting last summer and were jailed for carrying out attacks and ambushes, placing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), harboring and supplying Taliban fighters and caching explosives and weapons. The U.S. military considers them a radical and violent element.
U.S. Army combat outposts across the Arghandab River Valley, which borders the northern edge of Kandahar, have been on high alert since early morning. Most of the outposts were emptied of men and vehicles as they set up blocking positions throughout the Arghandab district and on the edge of Kandahar in an effort to contain the escapees. "The Arghandab is a natural hideout spot," says a soldier who is closely monitoring the situation. The valley with its dense cover of lush pomegranate orchards, maze of supply trails and system of safe houses and support networks is a historical Taliban stronghold and natural infiltration point into and out of the city.
"We have a major situation on our hands," says another American soldier. "We're out there photographing everyone as they walk by to match them to our database. If they're a match, we'll grab them. Basically there's an order out to arrest anyone walking around barefoot in Kandahar city" since none of the prisoners had shoes when they escaped through the tunnel.
The prison is near the edge of Kandahar. It is a shabby facility even though a huge amount of money has been spent on it to prevent escapes or assaults by the Taliban to liberate prisoners. When prison guards finally figured out what was going on Monday, they raided the house that the tunnel led to and found explosive vests and ammunition, according to Afghan news agencies.
"The enemy dug a tunnel from a house to the jail, and at 4:30 a.m., we heard that some prisoners had escaped," Kandahar Governor Toryalai Wesa said at press conference. "A tunnel like this can't be dug up in a week or a month the Taliban worked on it for many months."
The Taliban took responsibility for the jailbreak. Group spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi said that 106 of the escapees were Taliban commanders. "The digging of the underground tunnel was completed last night," Ahmadi declared. "Imprisoned insurgents were helped by three inmates, who were informed prior to the jailbreak. The process took more than four hours to complete. They started getting out of the prison at 11:00 p.m. last night, and by early morning today, 541 prisoners escaped the prison. They have all made it safe to our centers, and there was no fighting."
Wesa said at the press conference, "Some of the escaped prisoners have been recaptured by the security forces during search operations, and huge operations have been launched inside and on the outskirts of Kandahar city for the rest of them." He confessed, however, that the security forces had "failed in their duty."
There is suspicion among the U.S. military and local experts that the escape was an inside job. "There is no way such a large escape could have been pulled off without anyone noticing," says a soldier monitoring the situation. The International Crisis Group said in November that the Afghan justice system was "in a catastrophic state of disrepair" and that most Afghans see it as the most corrupt of the national institutions.