KABUL, Afghanistan -- The mud house where insurgents began digging a long tunnel that at least 488 inmates used to flee an Afghan prison had been searched about 2 1/2 months before by security forces who failed to notice anything amiss, authorities said Tuesday.
Afghan Justice Minister Habibullah Ghaleb faulted security forces for overlooking the more than 1,000-foot-long tunnel and failing to prevent the escape Sunday night and Monday morning from Kandahar's Sarposa prison. Authorities estimate that militants spent five months digging the tunnel.
"Earth or soil dug out of the tunnel must have been moved and should not have been missed by the eyes of the security forces," Mr. Ghaleb said in a report to President Hamid Karzai.
But Mr. Ghaleb also blamed foreign troops, noting that Canadian forces had been stationed at the prison in the past, and that U.S. troops had been building living quarters and judicial offices at the prison for the last four months even as the tunnel took shape beneath them.
Mr. Ghaleb said he suspects escapees had help from someone inside the prison, since they managed to unlock multiple cells to reach the tunnel, which ended in a single cell. The escape went on for more than four hours.
Afghan authorities and foreign troops launched a manhunt for the escapees but had captured only 65 as of late Tuesday, said Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar province.
The Taliban, which considers the escape a major victory, said 541 inmates fled through the tunnel and were later driven to safe houses.
Afghanistan's government has launched a full investigation of the escape, the second in three years at Sarposa. In 2008, nearly 900 prisoners, including Taliban fighters, escaped from Sarposa after a truck bomb attack at the prison gates.
Meanwhile, NATO officials attempted to focus attention on their recent offensives against insurgent leaders, announcing that they had killed a senior al-Qaida operative whom they described as the second-most-wanted insurgent in Afghanistan during an airstrike in Kunar province on April 13.
Abu Hafs al-Najdi, also known as Abdul Ghani, was al-Qaida's operations chief for Kunar, responsible for establishing insurgent training camps and recruiting sites throughout the area, the officials said in a statement. Authorities believe he funneled weapons to insurgents, organized al-Qaida finances and planned attacks on Afghan and coalition forces.