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Taliban jailbreak could hit NATO efforts: experts

Afghan men travel past the perimeter wall of the Kandahar prison on April 25, 2011. Almost 500 Taliban prisoners escaped from an Afghan prison overnight after their comrades had spent months digging a massive underground tunnel in an audacious jailbreak, officials said April 25. The Taliban said it was behind the operation in Kandahar, the militant Islamist organisation's heartland in the south of the country, and that all of those who escaped were its members, many of them senior commanders. Photo courtesy AFP.

NATO kills 'number two most-wanted' in Afghanistan
Kabul (AFP) April 26, 2011 - NATO troops in Afghanistan said Tuesday they had killed a Saudi described as an "Al-Qaeda senior leader" who was their number two most-wanted insurgent in the country.

The US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said Abu Hafs al-Najdi, also known as Abdul Ghani, was killed in an air strike in Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan, on April 13.

ISAF said he was responsible for coordinating "numerous high-profile attacks" and that they had been hunting him for four years.

But spokesman Major Michael Johnson told AFP he could not give details on the attacks for "safety and security reasons" and could not say who was number one on the most wanted list because of legal issues.

The Saudi interior ministry website lists a man named Saleh Nayef Eid al-Makhlafi, with the nicknames Abu Hafs, Abu Hafs al-Najdi and Abdul Ghani, as one of its 85 most-wanted.

ISAF said he operated primarily from Kunar, which borders Pakistan and is the scene of some of the country's heaviest fighting, and travelled frequently between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Islamist networks have rear bases.

It accused him of directing Al-Qaeda operations in the province, including "recruiting, training and employing fighters", obtaining weapons, organising Al-Qaeda finances, and planning attacks against Afghan and NATO forces.

He was blamed for directing a suicide attack which killed a pro-Kabul tribal elder in Kunar and nine other people on the morning of his death, plus other unspecified attacks on security forces and officials.

Johnson said it had taken time to confirm the insurgent's identity, hence the delay between his death and its announcement.

The Wall Street Journal earlier this month reported that Al-Qaeda militants were returning to eastern Afghanistan and setting up bases for the first time in years as troops pulled back from some remote outposts.

NATO in Afghanistan has denied this, although it said Tuesday that coalition forces had killed more than 25 Al-Qaeda leaders and fighters in the last month.

The announcement came the day after nearly 500 prisoners, many of them Taliban, escaped from Kandahar prison in southern Afghanistan in a major embarrassment to the Kabul government.

by Staff Writers
Kandahar, Afghanistan (AFP) April 26, 2011
An audacious jailbreak which saw hundreds of Taliban escape an Afghan prison through a tunnel threatens to undermine war gains claimed by US-led troops at a crucial time, experts say.

NATO forces in the south, the key battleground in nearly a decade of fighting and the Taliban's heartland, claimed major progress in operations last year following a troop surge led by the United States.

Western officials have said the coming months would be a litmus test of whether they could hold on to the gains made, and the war as a whole.

But after 488 Taliban, including what the militia said were 106 commanders, disappeared from Kandahar jail this week through a kilometre-long tunnel, there are fears that unrest could escalate.

Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network predicted the jailbreak would prove "deeply troubling" to international forces, saying it threatened to undo much of their progress in the south and give the Taliban a motivational lift.

"I don't think this is just an issue about extra numbers or the fact that you have got experienced commanders going back out," she said. "There's also the issue of the huge morale boost that this has given to the Taliban."

She stressed that the "intelligent, clever operation" -- which reportedly saw insurgents selling dirt excavated from the tunnel at Kandahar's bazaar -- would lend the Taliban a sense of momentum in the eyes of many Afghans.

But a key question in the aftermath of the breakout is how senior are members of the Taliban who managed to escape.

It seems unlikely they are top figures, who are usually transferred to bigger prisons such as at Bagram and Pul-e-Charki in Kabul, after being captured.

Some could be mid-level commanders, though. International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokesman Brigadier-General Josef Blotz said it was "too early" to comment on who escaped and the likely impact on the battlefield.

But a Western military official speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP the number of commanders was "way below" the 106 claimed by the Taliban. Another Western security source said it could even be as low as three or four.

Clark described such mid-level commanders, who could have dozens of foot soldiers serving under them, as the "backbone of the insurgency".

Other experts predicted that the experience of insurgents in an Afghan jail, where conditions are frequently insanitary and overcrowded, could bolster their determination to fight pro-government forces.

"These people will have bad memories from the time of their detention, they will have bad memories from interrogations and I'm sure they will come back and wreak revenge," said Noor-Ul Haq Ulumi, a former Afghan general with extensive experience in the south.

The Taliban itself issued a fresh salvo in its slick propaganda campaign with spokesman Tariq Ghazniwal on Tuesday predicting foreign forces faced "more military and political defeats".

Disillusioned locals in Kandahar seemed resigned to more bloodshed in the aftermath of the massive breach.

"This prison break has made everybody extremely worried," said Gul Mohammad, a shopkeeper in the city.

"The Taliban say there were 106 Taliban commanders among them. This means now they are freed, they will be involved in insecurity again," he said.

"They will create another 106 groups (of fighters) and carry out attacks and NATO forces will bomb them in return and civilians will get killed."

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