Taliban attack Afghan jail, hundreds escape

Fri Jun 13, 2008 5:02pm EDT

(Adds background)

By Ismail Sameem

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, June 13 (Reuters) - Taliban insurgents blew open the gate of a main prison in the Afghan city of Kandahar on Friday, allowing hundreds of prisoners including suspected militants to escape, officials said.

Under cover of darkness, nearly all of an estimated 1,150 prisoners, including some 400 Taliban inmates, fled from the jail, two officials in the southern city of Kandahar told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Another official said between 750 and 800 prisoners had managed to escape, adding some prisoners were killed in a gun battle between police and Taliban fighters inside the jail.

"I think scores of others are caught up inside," he said, adding he suspected the gate was blown up by a suicide bomber driving a truck. Several Taliban fighters entered the prison and started freeing the inmates, he said.

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.

The two officials who declined to be named said the Taliban fired several rockets at various parts of the mud-built prison. The province is a stronghold of the ousted Taliban movement.

Hours after the attack, several rockets hit a base used by foreign troops in another part of the city, an official and several residents said. Sirens were heard from inside the base, they added, but no further details were immediately available.

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

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

Last month, scores of Taliban prisoners in Kandahar's jail resorted to several days of hunger strike, mostly complaining of being badly treated.

The number of Al Qaeda-backed Taliban attacks has increased since 2006 and the prison raid ranks among 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 mostly active in southern and eastern areas near the border with Pakistan.

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 under the command of NATO and the U.S. military as well as the over 150,000 government forces. (Additional reporting by Mirwais Afghan; Writing by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Elizabeth Piper)