500 Taliban Prisoners Just Escaped Through a Long Underground Tunnel—Built Using No Heavy Machinery

In their biggest prison break since 2008, nearly 500 Afghani detainees (mostly Taliban members) escaped from the Sarposa Prison through an underground tunnel, dug from the outside. Now the U.S. military is searching high and low, hoping to corral the escapees back in. The crazy thing is that they built this long tunnel using nothing but basic tools—no machinery.

UPDATE: Two of the imprisoned Taliban members reveal all about their escape through the underground tunnel.

According to Al Jazeera, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said that a group on the outside spent five months digging a 320 meter tunnel that circumvented numerous security checkpoints (the length of the tunnel varies between 320 and 360 meters in different reports). Here's The Atlantic's account of the escape:

The militants launched the dig from a house "within shooting distance of the prison guard towers," the AP notes, but it's not clear whether they lived in the house as the dig continued. The head of Kandahar's prisons told The Guardian that constructing the tunnel must have been extremely labor-intensive given that the Taliban had to refrain from using heavy machinery that could attract attention to its efforts.

From the Times:

At 11 p.m. Sunday, three Taliban prisoners, who he said were the only ones who knew, "went from cell to cell waking people and guiding each of them to the tunnel."

"More Taliban were on hand as the prisoners emerged from the dirt and dust of the tunnel to guide the dazed prisoners to waiting vehicles. Also on hand were Taliban fighters and suicide bombers in case the security forces woke up and there was a fight.

The actual escape began around 11 pm, when imprisoned Taliban members who had obtained copies of the cell keys began guiding prisoners to the tunnel. The walk through the tunnel took over 30 minutes and when they emerged from the tunnel, they were taken away in waiting vehicles. Around 4 am, security guards discovered they had escaped (Taliban officials claim they didn't notice until 7:30 am).

The 2008 escape freed more than 1200 prisoners (and 350 Taliban members), but relied on a less stealth method in the form of a surprise attack on the prison. In that instance, 30 insurgence stormed the prison, which completely caught guards by surprise, creating an environment of chaos. This time around, the escape went totally undetected, leading some to believe some of the prison guards were involved. [NYT via The Atlantic]

[Image via Allauddin Khan/Associated Press]