Afghan prison attack stirs tensions with Pakistan

President Hamid Karzai threatened Sunday to send troops to Pakistan to fight militants themselves.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai threatened for the first time Sunday to send troops into Pakistan to fight militants, raising Afghanistan's longtime criticism of its neighbor for not stopping cross-border attacks to a new level.

President Karzai's statement came as NATO and Afghan forces continued hunting for 870 prisoners – including some 400 Taliban militants – who escaped Friday after a spectacular assault on a high-security prison in Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan.

The prison break did not negate overall advances in security but could hurt public confidence, NATO spokesperson Mark Laity told the Monitor.

The incident did prompt the strongest rhetoric yet from Karzai, who like many Afghan officials has long blamed Pakistan for the insurgency in their country, claiming that Pakistan helps insurgents by providing them a haven if not actively supporting them.

Because militants come from Pakistan "to come and kill Afghan and kill coalition troops, it exactly gives us the right to do the same," Karzai said at a press conference Sunday.

The president singled out Taliban leaders Mullah Omar and Baitullah Mehsud, saying, "We will complete the journey, and we will get them and we will defeat them. We will avenge all that they have done to Afghanistan for the past so many years," Karzai said.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said in response that his country wants good relations with its neighbors, but that the Afghan-Pakistan border is too long to prevent people from crossing, "even if Pakistan puts its entire Army along the border."

In the hunt for escaped prisoners, meanwhile, coalition forces claimed to have killed 15 insurgents during the manhunt and arrested five people. It was not clear whether those killed or captured were involved with the prison break or had been prisoners themselves.

Friday's prison attack sent a ripple of shock felt all the way to the capital city of Kabul, raising further questions about the security preparedness of the Afghan state and the international troops supporting it.

Details of the assault in Kandahar, where the president's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, heads the provincial council, reveal that it was well coordinated and well planned. According to the Taliban, they loaded explosives into a truck that they then rammed into the prison's front gate. As the gate fell, armed Taliban moved in, shooting prison guards who had survived.

While agreeing that security had been poor, Sayed Sami Sadat, deputy director of strategic communications in the Ministry of Interior, said there was no information to indicate whether there had been any inside help. The command-and-control structure of the prison had been destroyed in the attack, he said, and it would take time to piece the details together.

The Kandahar prison is administered by the Ministry of Justice and manned largely by guards from that ministry, as well as policemen from the Ministry of Interior. The prison guards have been trained by Canadian forces. They lead Kandahar's provincial reconstruction team and have reportedly spent $1.5 million on the training and the jail facility.

Afghanistan's prisons have a poor record of external and internal security as well as frequent reports of human rights abuses. The Kandahar prison itself saw a week-long hunger strike by prisoners that ended when a parliamentary delegation promised to look into allegations of severe abuse and torture.

Mr. Laity, the NATO spokesperson, played down the attack's significance. "Obviously it is a very serious breach of security in a carefully planned attack, and the outcome is very dismaying," he said, but added that this year has seen "significant successes putting the Taliban on the back foot operationally in many areas, and this does not set all that aside.

Militants have struck at several high-security, high-visibility targets this year, giving the impression that their operational capability has risen. This January Taliban fighters attacked the well-secured luxury Serena Hotel in Kabul. In April, militants disrupted a parade attended by several national and international dignitaries including Karzai, whom they tried to assassinate. The prison break is expected to strengthen the Taliban's morale.

Wire materials were used for this report.

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