Islamic militancy

Armed men attack prison, free 150 inmates in Philippines’ biggest jailbreak

Fleeing prisoners use bedding to escape over jail walls

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2017, 11:46am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 January, 2017, 10:23am

Suspected Muslim rebels staged the Philippines’ biggest jailbreak Wednesday when they stormed a dilapidated jail in the violence-plagued south of the country, freeing 158 inmates and killing a guard, authorities said.

The attack added to a long history of daring jailbreaks in the strife-torn south, home to a decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency as well as extremist gangs that have recently declared allegiance to the Islamic State group.

Six of the inmates were killed in firefights with pursuing police and army troops, while eight others have been caught and were being returned to the facility, said Senior Inspector Xavier Solda, spokesman for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.

Solda said the heavily armed gunmen emerged from a forest and attacked the North Cotabato District Jail in Kidapawan under the cover of darkness. Kidapawan city in Cotabato Province is about 930 kilometres south-east of the capital Manila.

“To my knowledge, this is the biggest jailbreak in the history” of the bureau, Solda said.

Acting Provincial Jail Warden Superintendent Peter John Bongngat Jr. said one of the about 20 prison guards on duty was killed and an inmate was wounded in an initial gunbattle.

Bongngat and Kidapawan police chief Superintendent Leo Ajero said gunfire continued for hours after the attack as army troops and police, some in armoured tanks, hunted through the surrounding forests for the escaped inmates and the gunmen who freed them.

Bongngat said the attackers were suspected to include members of the outlawed Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and guerrillas who broke away from the main Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has signed a peace deal with the government.

“It’s to rescue their comrades under our custody. It is a rescue operation,” Bongngat said.

“The (inmates) took chances because of the volume of fire... they used their bedding, piled them on top of each other to escape.”

Bongngat said the attackers were believed to be a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the nation’s largest Muslim rebel organisation that is in peace talks with the government.

Bongngat said the jail, which housed 1,511 inmates, lacked guards and was a dilapidated former school building located in a forested, secluded area.

Local village leader Alexander Austria said that he and his men captured one of the men.

He said the exchanges of gunfire woke his village, which was several kilometers from the prison, and he immediately posted guards because of worries the attackers and escaped inmates could enter the village.

“We heard the gunfire and we sprang into action to guard our village,” Austria said.

“We were afraid the escapees could try to enter our village to hide or take hostages.”

Three inmates facing charges of illegal possession of explosives and drugs escaped from the jail last year.

Kidapawan is home to various Muslim rebel groups, criminal gangs and communist insurgents.

“We have many Muslim personalities (in the jail) that are members of various organised, syndicated groups,” Bongngat said.

MILF spokesman Von al-Haq said the group did not know who the attackers were and was contacting its members to get more information.

The MILF has about 10,000 armed followers, but they have been observing a ceasefire with the government as part of the peace efforts.

The southern region of Mindanao is the ancestral homeland of the Muslim minority in the largely Catholic Philippines.

More than 120,000 people have been killed in the rebellion.

While the MILF is aiming for peace, there are various breakaway groups that are determined to continue fighting and have declared allegiance to the IS group.

The Maute group, regarded as one of the most dangerous extremist organisations, freed 23 inmates in a jailbreak last year in a nearby city.

Additional reporting by Associated Press