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Karzai faces flak after jailbreak

world Updated: Jun 14, 2008 23:40 IST

In a brazen attack, Taliban fighters assaulted the main prison in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on Friday night, blowing up the mud walls, killing 15 guards and freeing around 1,200 inmates. Among the escapees were about 390 Taliban members, including commanders, would-be suicide bombers and assassins, said Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar’s provincial council and a brother of President Hamid Karzai.

“It is very dangerous for security. They are the most experienced killers and they all managed to escape,” he said by telephone from Kandahar.

A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, said that the attack was carried out by 30 insurgents on motorbikes and two suicide bombers, and that they had freed 390 Taliban members, The Associated Press reported.

The breakout from Sarposa Prison will present enormous security challenges for Afghan and NATO forces surrounding Kandahar, President Karzai’s home city but also the spiritual capital of the Taliban. Traditionally, Kandahar is home to the rulers of Afghanistan, and control of it is seen as critical to the government’s hold on the entire country.

The prison break is also likely to increase pressure on President Karzai, who is coming under increasing criticism at home and abroad for his faltering leadership and his inability to manage the country. Even as international donors pledged $21 billion in aid for Afghanistan this week, many of them have criticized his failure to tackle the problems of security and corruption.

The attack began at 9:20 pm, when two truck bombs exploded at the prison gates, breaking down a part of the mud walls, Ahmed Karzai said. It seemed to be well planned, officials said. After the bombings, a group of fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles mounted an attack, said a spokesman for the provincial governor. They then ran through the prison, breaking open the cell doors.

Karzai said that the attackers focused their efforts on the political section of the prison, where the Taliban suspects were being held.

The prison lies on the west side of the city. Residents living about a half mile away in the center of town said the explosions broke windows in their street and that they could hear fighting raging for an hour after that.

There is also a section for ordinary criminals and one for some 80 female prisoners. Mr. Karzai said that the police and prison guards managed to prevent around 200 prisoners from escaping, but other officials contacted in the town said that every last prisoner had escaped.

Villagers living near the prison said they saw prisoners running along the roads, and scattering into nearby villages, generally heading north and east to the districts of Dand and Argandab outside the city, a security official in the city, Abdul Haleem, said. He warned that the Taliban could be sheltering very close to the city.