More than 600 prisoners escaped during a brazen Taliban bomb and rocket attack on the main prison in southern Afghanistan that knocked down the front gate and destroyed a two-story police checkpoint, a police official said on Saturday. At least nine police were killed.
The complex attack late on Friday included a truck bombing at the main gate, a suicide bomber who struck a back wall and rockets fired from outside, setting off a series of explosions that rattled Kandahar, the country's second biggest city.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said 30 insurgents on motorbikes and two suicide bombers attacked Sarposa Prison and freed about 400 Taliban members.
Police official Mohammad Jamal Khan said more than 600 prisoners escaped. He said nine police were killed and 12 were wounded. Eight prisoners also died in the assault, he said.
More than 30 nearby shops were damaged.
Wali Karzai, the brother of President Hamid Karzai who is president of Kandahar's provincial council, earlier said the prison held about 350 suspected Taliban fighters. He said all the prisoners escaped, but had no specific number. "There is no one left," he said.
It wasn't immediately possible to reconcile the discrepancy in the number of prisoners.
Kandahar was the Taliban's former stronghold and its province has been the scene of fierce fighting the past two years between insurgents and NATO troops, primarily from Canada and the United States.
The prison attack came just a few hours after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told his counterparts in Europe that NATO members need to bolster their military effort in Afghanistan, where violence has been escalating.
Dramatizing his report, Gates said for the first time, the monthly total of American and allied combat deaths in Afghanistan had exceeded the toll in Iraq during May.
Qabir, the prison warden, said the assault began when a tanker truck full of explosives detonated at the prison's main entrance, wrecking the gate and a police post, killing all the officers inside. He couldn't say how many police were killed. Shortly after that, a suicide bomber on foot blasted a hole in the back of the prison, Qabir said.
Witnesses reported that rockets were also fired at the prison during a 30-minute battle.
A shopkeeper who sells vegetables near the prison, Mohammad Hiqmatullah, said he saw prisoners run out and disappear into nearby pomegranate and grape groves.
Ahmadi, the Taliban spokesman, said militants had been planning the assault for two months. "Today we succeeded," he said, adding the escaped prisoners were "going to their homes." Officials with NATO's International Security Assistance Force said they were aware of the attack but didn't yet have any details. Last month, some 200 Taliban suspects at the prison ended a weeklong hunger strike after a parliamentary delegation promised that their cases would be reviewed.
Lawmaker Habibullah Jan said 47 of the prisoners had stitched their mouths shut during the hunger strike in May. He said some of the hunger strikers had been held without trial for more than two years and others were given lengthy prison sentences after short trials.
Earlier Friday, the separate U.S.-led military coalition said airstrikes were called in to support ground troops fighting insurgents in two Afghan provinces Thursday, killing more than 17 militants and a female civilian.
Separately, Afghan police said a Romanian soldier died in a Taliban rocket attack on the country's main highway. NATO confirmed the death of one of its soldiers, but declined to release the nationality.
Associated Press writer Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.