Taliban fighters dressed as Afghan policemen freed hundreds of inmates on Monday in a pre-dawn attack on the main prison in the central Afghan city of Ghazni.
Mohammed Ali Ahmadi, the deputy governor of Ghazni, told the Telegraph the insurgents blew up a car bomb at the prison entrance at around 2am local time on Monday (22 GMT on Sunday). Several armed gunmen wearing Afghan police uniforms then stormed the facility, located around 100 miles from Kabul, he added.
The attack is the latest sign of the Taliban’s ability to seriously challenge Afghan security forces in the wake of the international military drawdown and raised fears of a further deterioration in the stability of the province.
Safiullah, a Ghazni resident, said in an interview by telephone the force of the car bomb woke up “the entire town” and gunfire was heard for several hours afterwards.
Out of 453 inmates, 355 are believed to have escaped. At least 148 of those had been imprisoned due to links with the Taliban and other militant groups.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said three insurgents had been killed in the jailbreak. Afghan officials said four Afghan security personnel also died.
The attack appeared to have been well-planned. According to Mr Ahmadi, the Taliban had planted mines around the prison to thwart attempts to send security reinforcements. One of the insurgents killed during the attack was identified as a former inmate known to still have contact with current prisoners. He had managed to escape last year after allegedly paying bribes, Mr Ahmadi said.
The Taliban has long had a presence in Ghazni, but locals have complained of a recent spike in kidnappings, roadside bombings and militant attacks. In August, Afghan security forces shut down plans for a public memorial near the city to honour the death of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s founder.
The jailbreak is the most serious of several to be carried out by the Taliban in recent years. In 2008, it used similar tactics to free up to 1,000 inmates from Kandahar’s main prison.
The latest attack will be a significant propaganda victory for the Taliban and a morale boost to its fighters, as the leadership continues to fracture over who should succeed Mullah Omar, who is believed to have died in the last three years.
Mr Ahmadi warned the escape of nearly 150 Taliban fighters, and other prisoners who he believes may have radicalised while incarcerated, also directly threatened the stability of his province.
“Even the prisoners not associated with the Taliban before may feel indebted to fight with them now,” he said.
The Taliban are fighting to overthrow the foreign-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani, expel foreign forces from Afghanistan and impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law.