By Krista Mahr and Mirwais Harooni
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan authorities rushed 150 "dangerous" inmates from a prison in the restive southern province of Helmand to the capital Kabul at the weekend, officials said, part of a drive to secure prisons after Taliban militants orchestrated two major jailbreaks in recent weeks.
Since mid-September, Taliban fighters have broken out hundreds of inmates, many of them captured insurgent fighters, from two prisons in Afghanistan during a period of heightened insecurity across the country.
The Helmand transfer came after militants clashed with government forces near the provincial capital Lashkar Gah last week, sparking concerns another major Afghan city might fall after the Taliban briefly captured the northern city Kunduz in its biggest military victory in 14 years.
Immediately after seizing Kunduz, gunmen overwhelmed guards at the city's main prison and freed some 600 inmates, officials said at the time, just two weeks after insurgents attacked a jail in central Ghazni province and hundreds of prisoners escaped.
"There was a rumor that the Taliban would attack the main prison when they were fighting with Afghan forces on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah," said Helmand police spokesman Shah Mahmood Ashna. "We transferred some of the most dangerous prisoners to Kabul."
Concerns over further raids, exacerbated by substandard prisons in many areas, are an unwelcome complication for the government as the Taliban campaign spreads across the country.
If the Lashkar Gah prison were breached, the release of Taliban prisoners into Helmand, an insurgency stronghold, could bolster their position in the fiercely contested region.
In the last year, militants have repeatedly attacked prisons in restive areas. Most attacks have been repelled, but after Ghazni and Kunduz, security was ramped up at several facilities, said Sediq Seddiqi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the nation's prisons.
"The minister was very serious to instruct police to provide maximum security to prisons in vulnerable areas," said Seddiqi.
"They are on high alert."
On Sept. 14, Taliban stormed a prison in Ghazni, central Afghanistan, releasing over 350 inmates, more than a third of whom were deemed a threat to national security, officials said.
Fighting had intensified in the province, but the audacity and scale of the attack took authorities by surprise.
When militants pulled off an even bigger feat and successfully took control of Kunduz weeks later, freeing inmates from the city's prison was among the first things the fighters did. Of the 600 who escaped, more than 100 were known Taliban fighters, officials said at the time.
After the Ghazni break, the city's deputy governor said security at the facility, a mud building, was well below recommended standards, a problem observers say is widespread.
"We're concerned that what happened to prisoners in Kunduz and Ghazni may happen around the country," said Rafihullah Bedar, spokesman for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "Our information shows there are few standard detention centers in Afghanistan. The rest are in old buildings, or rental houses."
The government is aware of the problem and plans new detention centers in every province. So far, 15 new facilities have been completed and four are under construction.
Dangerous prisoners have also been transferred from areas deemed to be vulnerable to attack to high-security facilities in the capital region, said Sediqqi, who declined to say how many inmates have been moved so far.
That process is 85 percent complete, and prisoners who have yet to be moved to maximum security jails are secure, he said.
In Helmand, hundreds of sensitive prisoners have already been moved to the capital under the plan. But more remain.
(Reporting by Krista Mahr and Mirwais Harooni; Additional reporting by Mohammad Stanekzai in Lashkar Gah; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)