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Afghan forces hunt escaped Taliban prisoners

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  • Security forces comb countryside after daring jailbreak
  • Canadian NATO forces assist in search for escapees
  • Well-executed attack looks like al Qaeda, official says
  • Militants used truck bombs to topple walls, motorcycles to carry off prisoners
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(CNN) -- Afghan security forces on Saturday worked to hunt down the nearly 400 Taliban militants who escaped from a Kandahar prison in what police called a daring and well-executed jailbreak the day before.

Police sources say the strike freed suicide bombers and cell leaders who had been captured over the past six years. They say it resembles two other attacks earlier this year that could have involved al Qaeda.

"It was a planned attack the same as they destroyed the twin towers in America," said Abdul Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar's provincial council. "It was a planned attack that succeeded.

"We know the militants had phone contacts with some of the prisoners inside the prison for several days before the attack," said Karzai, the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Video Watch how the prison break went down »

Afghan security forces say searching will be tough in some areas and impossible in others. The Taliban are entrenched there and the region is replete with militants' hideouts.

The militants may have gone to two regions of Kandahar province that has a large Taliban presence, Maiwand and Zherai districts.

"We want to touch them," one senior police official said, "but they are out of our hands now."

Gen. Mohammad Sadiq Shinwari, head of the military prosecution office in Kandahar, said 892 prisoners escaped: 389 Taliban and the rest common criminals.

There were 1,059 prisoners incarcerated at the time of the attack and 167 of them remain in the prison, the second-largest in the country and controlled by the Afghan government.

Analysts -- who say the escape is a huge psychological victory for the Taliban in southern Afghanistan -- note that this was the latest of three commando-style attacks in the country in recent months. The attacks reflect the sophistication of the militants and efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan citizenry.

The other attacks are the attempted assassination of Karzai at a military ceremony in April and the strike on the five-star Serena Hotel in Kabul. Both are suspected as al Qaeda jobs as well.

The al Qaeda terror network attacked the United States September 11, 2001, during the Taliban's rule over Afghanistan. A U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban government, but the militant group developed into a potent insurgency.

In Friday's incident, the militants used suicide truck bombs loaded with about two tons of explosives to blast holes in the mud brick walls of the Soviet-era prison, a Taliban spokesman said.

A gun and rocket battle between the militants and prison guards lasted several hours and ended with dozens of militants rushing inside on motorcycles to free all prisoners inside, the Taliban spokesman said.

Nine guards, seven prisoners and one civilian were killed in the attack, according to Ahmad Wal Karzai.

Several Taliban prisoners had recently started a hunger strike.

Checkpoints were set up around the prison in an attempt to catch the escapees, one police officer said.

Authorities had also requested assistance, such as a helicopter, from nearby Canadian forces from NATO's International Security Assistance Forces.

"We asked for NATO assistance and Canadian helicopters did arrive at the scene but they were late and we could not do anything," said an Afghan security official.

An ISAF spokesman said on Saturday coalition troops have assisted Afghan forces with a cordon around the prison, help with patrols and provision of resources, such as aircraft.

"We have troops on the scene right now including Canadian troops," said another military official, Canadian military spokesman Maj. Jay Janszen. "We have established a security perimeter in the vicinity of prison."

As for the security situation in Kandahar, Janszen said, "We believe things are improving. We are working with Afghan allies to bring stability to the region so that we can further develop and offer reconstruction to the people of Kandahar province."

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The incident comes as violence rages in Afghanistan's southern provinces, a major front in the fight between NATO-led troops and the Taliban.

A roadside bomb on Saturday killed four U.S. Marines in Farah province in southwestern Afghanistan, the U.S.-led coalition said.

CNN's Barbara Starr and Journalist Farhad Peikar contributed to this report.

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