The shock escape of a top bomb-maker of a regional terrorist group from a high-security Philippines jail could have been an "inside job" aimed at embarrassing President Gloria Arroyo, a key US ally in the global on terror, officials said yesterday.
Arroyo voiced suspicions over the escape of Indonesian Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, the self-confessed bomb-maker of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network, which has been blamed for last October's Bali bombings that claimed 202 lives.
Al-Ghozi and two members of the Abu Sayyaf Muslim kidnap gang escaped the jail in Camp Crame with no apparent signs of having forced their way out.
"Camp Crame is gaining notoriety for its very porous detention centers, and it is becoming hard to believe that these escapes of heinous criminals are the result of ordinary laxity," Arroyo said in her first public statement on the howler.
Al-Ghozi escaped just as Australian Prime Minister John Howard was visiting Manila to announce heightened counter-terrorism cooperation.
Interior Secretary Jose Lina said police were considering the possibility that "the escape was completed even earlier than yesterday morning and the timing [of the announcement] was precisely to embarrass the government and the administration" during the Howard trip.
He said he suspected it was "an inside job and we are looking into all the possible connections of the people responsible for the escape," he said without saying who might be behind such a plot.
Howard warned yesterday that the escape of the three was a "serious setback" and warned that the JI "still has great capacity to mount further terrorist attacks" in the region.
US embassy spokesman Frank Jenista said Washington was "deeply disturbed" by the escape and was looking forward "to a full and immediate investigation."
Lina said a reward of five million pesos (US$93,310) had been offered for al-Ghozi's recapture. Smaller rewards were offered for the two Abu Sayyaf members.
Arroyo's spokesman Ignacio Bunye said government agencies had been ordered to coordinate with their counterparts in Indonesia to recapture al-Ghozi.
Lina said administrative and criminal charges would be filed against those responsible for allowing al-Ghozi to flee.
Bunye said three jail officials had been sacked but there were no immediate reports of anyone being charged with connivance.
National police chief Hermogenes Ebdane, earlier said he suspected "money changed hands."
He said security forces had been given shoot-at-sight orders on al-Ghozi and his accomplices.
"If you have a gun and you see them, you can shoot them," Ebdane said.
Ebdane rejected calls by legislators to resign for the latest escape incident, saying: "I am ready to face the music ... but I will not run away from the problem. I will face the problem first."
Al-Ghozi, a self-confessed Indonesian operative of the JI, was sentenced to 17 years in a Philippine prison last year for possession of explosives.
He later admitted to helping organize bomb attacks with JI leaders, on a Manila railway station and several key installations in December 2000 that killed 22 and wounded nearly 100 others.
Al-Ghozi was the latest of several prominent detainees to escape from the police headquarters.
Last year, Faisal Marahombsar, leader of the so-called Pentagon kidnap-for-ransom group, escaped from Camp Crame. Police later gunned him down.