ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Hundreds of prisoners escaped from a jail in southern Afghanistan on Friday after Taliban fighters blew off the gates in a suicide attack that killed several police officers, according to a U.S. military official. Many of those freed were apparently Taliban suspects.
The attack occurred in the evening in the southern city of Kandahar, a longtime stronghold of the Taliban insurgency, when attackers drove an explosives-laden vehicle toward the city jail, according to a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Prisoners breached the walls of the prison when a barrage of rocket and gunfire followed the initial attack.
A prison official at the scene said the bloody skirmish at the jail had left it nearly empty. Soldiers with NATO forces in the region were working with members of the Afghan National Police to cordon off the area.
Government officials declared a state of emergency in Kandahar early today.
Officials said that as many as 1,000 prisoners had been housed at the facility. Wali Karzai, president of Kandahar’s provincial council, told the Associated Press that about 350 of the prisoners were suspected Taliban fighters.
Karzai, brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said that “all” the prisoners had escaped but that he did not have a specific number.
“There is no one left,” he said.
Kandahar was the religious and ethnic birthplace of the Taliban movement, and its fighters have made a strong comeback in the surrounding province in the past two years despite aggressive attempts by U.S., Canadian and British forces to drive them out. But coalition officials have claimed significant progress in recent efforts.
A former defense intelligence analyst this month predicted a Taliban effort to seize Kandahar city as the major urban center in the ethnic Pashtun heartland. His report also cited a growing number of attacks around Kabul, the capital, as signifying efforts to spread the insurgency in and around large cities.
The United States provides about 26,000 of the roughly 54,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan and has the leading combat role in the eastern part of the country, while U.S. Special Operations forces operate in all regions. British, Canadian, Australian and Dutch forces play key combat roles in southern Afghanistan.
In a measure of the increasing volatility, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that for the first time, the monthly total of U.S. and allied combat deaths in Afghanistan had exceeded the toll in Iraq in May. Gates, addressing his European counterparts at NATO headquarters in Brussels, said other NATO members needed to do more to help stabilize Afghanistan.