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450 escape in Taliban jail breakout

Taliban militants dug a lengthy tunnel into the main jail in Kandahar city and whisked out more than 450 prisoners, most of whom were Taliban fighters, officials and insurgents said.

The massive overnight jailbreak in Afghanistan's second-largest city underscores the Afghan government's continuing weakness in the south, despite an influx of international troops, funding and advisers.

The 1,200-inmate Sarposa Prison has undergone security upgrades and tightened procedures after a brazen 2008 Taliban attack that freed 900 prisoners. Afghan government officials and their Nato backers have regularly said that the prison has vastly improved security since that attack.

But on Sunday night, about 475 prisoners streamed out of a tunnel that had been dug into the facility and disappeared into Kandahar city, prison supervisor Ghulam Dastagir Mayar said. He said the majority of the missing were Taliban militants.

"This is a blow," presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said. "A prison break of this magnitude of course points to a vulnerability."

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said insurgents dug the 1,050ft tunnel to the prison over five months, bypassing government checkpoints and major roads. The diggers finally poked through to the prison cells on Sunday night, and the inmates were ushered through the tunnel to freedom by three prisoners who had been informed of the plan, Mr Mujahid said in a statement.

He added that about 100 of the inmates were Taliban commanders. The prisoners were led through the tunnel over four and a half hours, all without drawing the attention of prison guards, he said.

Four of those who escaped were provincial-level Taliban commanders, said Qari Yousef Ahmadi, another Taliban spokesman

The highest-profile Taliban inmates are not likely to be held at Sarposa. The US keeps detainees it considers a threat at a facility outside Bagram Air Base in eastern Afghanistan. Other key Taliban prisoners are held by the Afghan government in a high-security wing of the main prison in Kabul.

A man said to be one of the inmates who helped organise the escape from the inside said a group of inmates obtained copies of the keys to the cells ahead of the breakout. "There were four or five of us who knew that our friends were digging a tunnel from the outside," said Mohammad Abdullah, who said he had been in Sarposa for two years after being captured in nearby Zhari district with a stockpile of weapons. "Some of our friends helped us by providing copies of the keys. When the time came at night, we managed to open the doors for friends who were in other rooms."

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