KABUL — Heavily armed Taliban insurgents in military garb stormed a major prison in Afghanistan on Monday, battling security forces and freeing more than 350 inmates and fellow insurgents in a bold attack.
The commando-style strike — beginning with a truck bomb blast at the prison entrance — marked one of the Taliban’s largest operations since the July acknowledgment of the death of the group’s reclusive leader, Mohammad Omar.
After the announcement, there were reports of infighting over who would succeed Omar and whether to resume peace talks with the government in Kabul.
The latest attack suggests, however, that factions within the Taliban have maintained enough unity and organization to carry out large-scale assaults.
Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry said 355 prisoners — 148 of them considered militants — managed to flee the mud-walled complex in volatile Ghazni province, about 75 miles southwest of Kabul.
At least four police officers and several insurgents were killed in a gun battle that lasted several hours, according to Mohammad Ali Ahmadi, Ghazni’s deputy governor. Several prisoners were wounded, he said.
At least two suicide bombers were among those killed, officials said, and several escapees were recaptured.
Police have launched “a massive operation” to arrest the remaining escapees, according to the Interior Ministry.
In an English-language statement issued Monday, the Taliban asserted responsibility for the attack and said “400 inmates facing torture and abuse” were freed from the prison and moved to areas under “Mujahideen control.”
The statement, by spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, said the attack involved 10 “martyrdom seekers,” three of whom were killed in the operation.
The assault began when insurgents blew up a truck rigged with explosives at the jail entrance, allowing the insurgents to make their way inside, Ahmadi said.
“From outside, the Taliban fired rocket-propelled grenades on the jail and a gun battle broke out,” he added.
Officials said many of the prisoners were Taliban foot soldiers caught on the battlefield or while planning attacks. The prisoners did not include key Taliban commanders, they noted.
The Taliban, however, said senior figures were among the escapees.
Before the attack began, insurgents had placed land mines on dirt roads leading to the jail to block government reinforcements.
The incident was the largest jailbreak in Afghanistan since April 2011, when more than 500 inmates escaped Kandahar’s main prison by digging a long tunnel.
In 2008, more than 1,100 prisoners had fled from the same prison.
The latest jailbreak comes at a sensitive time for the government, which has struggled to provide security, including in Kabul, the heavily fortified capital.
On Monday, Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s chief executive, rejected rumors that the government faces increasing risks of a coup, but he conceded that months of violence have eroded public trust in the government.
“We should assure the people that we are committed to the people,” he said. “There is no program, as believed, outside or inside Afghanistan, for establishment of a different system.”