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Deadly Taliban assault frees 1,000 prisoners

June 14, 2008|M. Karim Faiez and Henry Chu | Special to The Times

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Taliban insurgents mounted a well-coordinated attack Friday on a southern Afghan prison, allowing more than 1,000 prisoners, including hundreds of militants, to escape, authorities said.

A huge truck bomb blew open the front gate of the prison about 9 p.m. in Kandahar, the spiritual cradle of the Taliban movement. A suicide bomber also struck the back of the facility, the Associated Press reported.

Attackers then streamed into the prison and battled police for about 30 minutes, resulting in the deaths of some inmates and guards, according to news agencies and a police officer in Kandahar who was reached by telephone. The militants also fired rockets at the prison, streaking the nighttime sky with light.

Among the more than 1,000 prisoners who escaped were common criminals as well as about 380 Taliban insurgents, said Wali Karzai, president of Kandahar's provincial council.

This morning, the prison was surrounded by police.

Militants being held at the prison included both rank-and-file fighters and commanders, whose escape may aggravate the difficulty North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Afghan forces have had in securing the insurgency-ridden south and east of the country.

"There is no one left," Karzai said after the jailbreak.

Karzai is a brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was in Paris this week seeking to collect more than $20 billion in pledged aid from donor nations. He was supported in his efforts by First Lady Laura Bush, who declared that Afghanistan had "reached a decisive moment" in its history, 6 1/2 years after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban from power.

The country is facing an emboldened insurgency, growing unrest over rising food prices, endemic corruption and public anger that billions of dollars in foreign aid have brought little improvement to the lives of many Afghans.

For the 60,000 foreign troops deployed here, life has also become more dangerous because of roadside bombs and suicide attacks.

The dramatic prison assault was the latest in a string of high-profile insurgent attacks that show the Taliban is capable of meticulously planned operations as well as quick-hit tactics.

In January, a group of militants blasted its way past heavy security at Afghanistan's only luxury hotel, killing several people.

In April, insurgents managed to mount an assassination attempt on the president at a public parade in Kabul, smuggling weapons into a building near the parade ground despite days of heightened security throughout the capital. Karzai was hustled away, as were other dignitaries at the event, including the U.S. and British ambassadors.

The mass prisoner escape is a blow to Afghanistan's fledgling police force, which since last year had begun assuming responsibility for more captured Taliban militants under an agreement to take them out of the custody of foreign forces.

Last month, about 200 Taliban suspects at the Kandahar prison ended a weeklong hunger strike after meeting a parliamentary delegation that promised to review the cases.

henry.chu@latimes.com

Special correspondent Faiez reported from Kabul and staff writer Chu from Pune, India.

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