Inside the Prison Escape

This month's spectacular prison escape in Kandahar began with a jailed guerrilla's phone conversation with the No. 2 leader of the Afghan insurgency, according to one of the roughly 350 Taliban fighters who broke out. Speaking to NEWSWEEK by phone from his home in eastern Afghanistan late last week, Taliban subcommander Mullah Khan Muhammad Akhund, 36, said more than 700 of the prison's approximately 1,000 inmates were allowed to have their own mobile phones. It was one of the few comforts at the antiquated and squalid Sarposa Prison, where 15 to 20 men were crammed into each tiny cell, he says. Counting on prisoners' families to pay, prison authorities charged each inmate $100 a month for the privilege of keeping a phone, according to Akhund, who was serving an eight-year sentence in Sarposa before the escape.

About two months ago, he says, a Taliban inmate known as Mullah Qasam was on the phone describing the brutality of daily life at Sarposa to Mullah Bradar—"Mullah Brother," as the group's second in command is known. The place was awful, Qasam complained, and many prisoners were falling ill. Mullah Bradar promised to talk to his advisers about it, and a week later he called back to say everyone would soon go free. But the wait lasted weeks, while Akhund and other prisoners kept looking at the guards, the thick wall, the huge gate and the tight security, and wondering if they had dreamed the whole thing.

On the evening of June 13, as the guards were sitting down to dinner while prisoners ate watermelon (it's in season and cheap), there was a massive explosion, a burst of gunfire, and the main gate blew up. A suicide bomber driving a fuel tanker had ripped the place wide open. Armed Taliban fighters poured in, using their AK-47s to shoot the locks off the cells, and all the prisoners swarmed to freedom. Akhund waded through the confusion to the main highway, where a convoy of minivans was waiting to carry Taliban men to the nearby village of Malajat. When Akhund's group got out, the vehicle went back to the prison for another load of passengers. The Taliban had other vehicles waiting at the village to relay the escapees toward their homes. Akhund says some of the guards stripped off their uniforms and fled into the night with the prisoners—perhaps to avoid being killed.

No one seems to know exactly how many men were locked up at Sarposa, but every media account agrees they all got away, including some 350 alleged Taliban fighters. By the next evening, Akhund says, he was home, where his parents and his three children were thrilled to see him. Some escapees went straight to their fighting units; asked if he'll go back to his men, he says, "Definitely." As he spoke to NEWSWEEK, his 3-year-old son kept trying to snatch his phone away.