The prisoners dug a 360-metre-long tunnel to the south of the prison and escaped from it last night, the prison director said. –File Photo

KABUL: Almost 500 Taliban prisoners have escaped from Kandahar prison in southern Afghanistan through a tunnel hundreds of metres long, officials said Monday.

The Taliban said it was behind the huge jail break and that all of those who escaped were members of the militant organisation.

“A tunnel hundreds of metres long was dug from the south of the prison into the prison and 476 political prisoners escaped last night,” said prison director General Ghulam Dastageer Mayar.

The acting police chief of Kandahar, Shair Shah Yousufzai, also confirmed the escape, saying: “Last night some political prisoners broke out of the prison and have escaped.”

Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi said the militant extremists were responsible for the mass break-out.

“Prisoners dug a 360-metre-long tunnel to the south of the prison. They started getting out of the prison at 11:00 pm local time last night and by early morning today, 541 prisoners escaped the prison,” he said.

“They all have made it safe to our centres and there was no fighting.”

106 were Taliban commanders while the rest were footsoldiers. The Taliban are known to exaggerate their claims.

The jail break is the second major escape in three years from Kandahar prison.

In 2008, around 1,000 prisoners including members of the Taliban escaped after the Taliban used a truck bomb to blow open the gates.

A statement from the Kandahar provincial governor’s office insisted that “a number” of the prisoners had since been recaptured without giving precise figures. It added that a search was under way for the rest of the escapees.

The Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said it was on standby to provide assistance if requested by Afghan officials.

“We have no involvement at this point,” said ISAF spokesman Major Michael Johnson in Kabul. “If we’re asked to assist in any capacity, we would certainly be standing by to do that.”

Kandahar is seen as the birthplace of the movement and the city and surrounding area is scene of some of the worst fighting in Afghanistan.

The police chief of Kandahar was killed by a Taliban suicide bomber dressed in police uniform 10 days ago, dealing a serious blow to security in the province.

There are around 130,000 international troops in Afghanistan, two-thirds of them from the United States, battling the Taliban and other insurgents.

Limited withdrawals from seven relatively peaceful areas, only one of which is in southern Afghanistan, are due to start in July ahead of the planned end of foreign combat operations in 2014.

But senior US officials are increasingly stressing the importance of longer-term relations between it and Afghanistan, while warning that the Taliban could still launch some of its worst attacks.

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