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“The doors of our cell are not usually locked, so we easily got out and went to the tunnel,” Taliban fighter, Hamid Gul said. –File Photo

KANDAHAR: Taliban fighters who escaped from an Afghan prison alongside hundreds of comrades have described how they crawled to freedom along a stifling tunnel fitted with lights and an air pipe.

One said he spent half an hour crawling 1,000 metres through the tunnel from south Afghanistan’s Kandahar prison to a nearby safe house before being arrested by police suspicious of his dirty clothes and bare feet.

Another Taliban, who like the first has since been recaptured, claimed cells in the supposedly high-security prison were routinely left unlocked, allowing easy access to the tunnel, which the militia say took five months to dig.

A third, who is still on the run, told how he was questioned by police at a checkpoint but that officers failed to realise his identity, even though his clothes were filthy.

Some of the more than 60 prisoners who have been recaptured told their stories at a press conference organised by Afghanistan’s intelligence service Tuesday.

Some 488 prisoners, many of them Taliban, escaped the jail in the militia’s heartland over several hours late Sunday and early Monday in what President Hamid Karzai’s office said may have been an inside job.

Wali Mohammad, a Taliban fighter in Helmand province’s Marjah district before being jailed, said he was woken at around 1:30 am Monday by noises in his prison cell.

“When I opened my eyes, I saw three Taliban armed with Kalashnikovs who were waking the prisoners,” he said.

“They guided us to the top of the hole and we all got in, one after another.

“There were lights inside the tunnel and also a pipe which I think was carrying air. It took us around half an hour to reach the other end.”

After emerging from the tunnel into the safe house, he tried to flee to his cousin’s home in Kandahar city in search of food and clothing.

“But near the house, people and police became suspicious of me as I was barefoot and my clothes were stained with mud from the tunnel and they arrested me,” he explained.

A second prisoner, Jaan Mohammad, insisted he was not in the Taliban and had not wanted to escape.

“But they pointed their guns towards us and warned that we either go or they will shoot us, so we went,” he said.

“The air inside the tunnel was very heavy and I felt like choking. At the other end of the tunnel, there were eight or nine people who told us to disperse and leave.

“I went to a village and hid myself among the wheat fields there but people saw me and they informed the police, who later arrested me.”

A third man, Taliban fighter Hamid Gul, said he knew an escape was imminent.

“The doors of our cell are not usually locked, so we easily got out and went to the tunnel,” he said.

“I was told to go to Arghandab district (elsewhere in Kandahar province) and join the Taliban there but I was detained by police inside Kandahar city.”

But in some cases, police were less successful in identifying escapees.

One who said he was still on the run, Mullah Edris, told how he sneaked through a police checkpoint undetected shortly after the break-out.

After going through the tunnel, he left the safe house in one of a large number of vehicles that the Taliban sent to ferry away escapees, he told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.

“There were lots of checkpoints on the way,” he said. “I was stopped by policemen at only one. They asked me why I was barefoot and my clothes were stained with mud.

“I told them I was a labourer and they let me go. I am now in a district and am ready to rejoin other mujahideen to fight the government and the foreigners.”

None of the men spoke about whether prison officials had colluded in the escape.

Karzai’s office said there were signs of “cooperation and facilitation from inside” that allowed the tunnel to be built.

The Taliban said over 100 of those who escaped were commanders, although Western military and security sources insist the figure is much lower. The militant extremists are known to exaggerate their claims.