U.S.-backed Afghan forces launched a massive manhunt Monday for hundreds of inmates, most of them Taliban fighters, who fled down a tunnel burrowed under the walls of southern Kandahar province's main maximum-security prison.
The second mass breakout from Sarposa prison in nearly three years underscored how Afghan security forces remain deficient despite receiving billions of dollars in training and equipment from the United States and other countries.
The United States and its allies are working to bolster the country's security forces as part of their strategy to transfer responsibility for security throughout the country to the national government by 2014.
"This incident [is a reminder] that we still have loopholes," said Wahed Omar, spokesman for President Hamid Karzai. "We are worried about it. This is a blow, and it is something that should not have happened."
The breakout, an intensifying campaign of assassinations of local officials and a recent series of attacks on government facilities show how resilient the Taliban-led insurgency remains despite suffering battlefield setbacks since last year's surge of U.S. forces into Kandahar and the adjacent insurgent stronghold of Helmand province.
At least 488 prisoners fled Sarposa prison though the 1,050-foot tunnel dug from a nearby house before guards in the facility, which is encircled by walls topped with razor wire and guard towers, discovered the breakout, Kandahar Gov. Toryalai Wesa said.
Wesa accused Afghan intelligence and prison officials of neglect and of failing to properly perform their duties.
Afghan security forces closed off exits from Kandahar city, which had been the headquarters of the Taliban movement until the 2001 U.S. invasion, and fanned out in a search of the escapees, rounding up 24 by the end of the day, officials said.
Two were killed when they tried to resist arrest, said Gen. Salim Ehsas, a senior police commander. He expressed confidence that the rest would be "rearrested soon" because authorities have their biometric data, including fingerprints and retina scans.
But several residents expressed concern that many escapees would return to fighting the U.S.-backed government, reversing security improvements in and around the country's second largest city that resulted from last year's U.S. troop surge.
"Absolutely it will affect the situation, and the security will get worse because a large number of Taliban, including some senior commanders, fled the jail," said Hekmatullah, a resident, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
It took six months to dig the 2-foot-wide tunnel and four hours for all of the escapees to make their way out of the facility, beginning at 11 p.m. Sunday, a Taliban spokesman said.
It appeared that the plot involved inside assistance. Those involved had keys that they used to open the door to the cell in the prison's political block where the tunnel emerged, as well as the doors to the other escapees' cells.
The breakout occurred despite improvements made to the prison after 900 inmates escaped on June 13, 2008.