Kandahar: Taliban fighters who escaped from an Afghan prison alongside hundreds of comrades have described how they crawled to freedom along a stifling tunnel lined with lights and an air pipe.
One said he spent half an hour scrambling through the kilometre-long tunnel from Kandahar prison in southern Afghanistan to a nearby safe house, before being arrested by police suspicious of his dirty clothes and bare feet.
Another Taliban militant told of how cells in the supposedly high-security prison were routinely left unlocked, allowing easy access to the man-made tunnel, which the Taliban say they took five months to dig.
The men, recaptured along with more than 60 others, recounted their stories as they were brought before reporters at a press conference organised by Afghanistan`s intelligence service on 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 has said may have been an inside job.
Experts say the jailbreak could undermine gains claimed by NATO-led forces at the start of the fighting season in a war year described as pivotal by many Western officials. Foreign forces say they are still assessing the impact.
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.
"It was later in the night that we realised it was time as we heard some noise," he said.
"The doors of our cell are not usually locked, so we easily got out and went to the tunnel.”
"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."
None of the men spoke about whether prison officials had colluded in the escape. Karzai`s office charges there were signs of "cooperation and facilitation from inside" which allowed the tunnel to be built.
The Taliban says over 100 of those who escaped were commanders, although Western military and security sources insist the figure is much lower than that. The militant Islamists are known regularly to exaggerate their claims.