KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- The massive security breach that allowed the Taliban to spirit more than 480 Afghan inmates out of southern Afghanistan's largest prison must have involved inside collaborators, the Justice Ministry said yesterday, as security forces worked to recapture the escaped convicts.

Prison officials discovered early Monday morning that the inmates, nearly all of them Taliban militants, were missing from their cells, and then found the tunnel through which they appeared to have made their getaway.

The Taliban said the prison break was five months in the making, with diggers starting the tunnel from under a nearby house while they arranged for inmates to get keys so that they could open their cells on the night of the escape.

Government officials started to piece through the details of the escape Tuesday and place blame. Justice Minister Habibullah Ghalib sent a formal letter to President Hamid Karzai, acknowledging that prison officials or guards probably acted as accomplices but also saying that Afghan and international security forces should have detected the plot.

"The escape of all the prisoners from one tunnel . . . shows that collaborators inside the prison somehow provided an opportunity," Ghalib said in the letter.

He noted, however, that Afghan police searched the compound from which the tunnel originated about 2 1/2 months before the prison break, and he said that Canadian and American forces have been responsible for security improvements to the prison. A full investigation is under way.

An intelligence officer who is involved in the investigation, Gen. Tahir Mohmand, said that they had warned prison officials a number of times recently that they had reports that the Taliban were planning some sort of operation involving the prison.

"We had some clues that the Taliban were busy in some kind of plan to get their prisoners out," he said.

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