Tue, Apr 13, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Manila tries to limit political fallout of weekend jailbreak

EMBARRASSMENT Seventeen of the 53 prisoners who escaped are still at large, including 10 suspected militants

REUTERS , MANILA

Philippine troops killed nine prisoners and are hunting nearly a dozen suspected Islamic militants after a weekend jailbreak that has embarrassed the govern-ment ahead of closely contested elections.

The escape by 53 prisoners, including 23 Abu Sayyaf suspects, in a southern rebel stronghold came as a newspaper reported that the US had urged the Philippines to step up its fight against terror groups.

The New York Times said US diplomats had met President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo last month to tell her that the government was not doing enough against terror threats, in what it said was a similar warning to that given to Indonesia before the 2002 Bali bombing.

US Charge d'Affairs Joseph Mussomeli denied the report yesterday, saying the meeting had been a regular security briefing.

"The use of terms like reproach or reprimand are just silly," he said on television.

Arroyo, who has built her presidency on firm support for the US war on terror, also said there had been no reproach.

"Those who are talking about fictitious diplomatic reproaches or anything of the sort only want this partnership to fail, and they are playing into the hands of the terrorists," Arroyo said in a statement.

As of yesterday, nine prisoners had been killed, 27 recaptured, while 17 remained at large including 10 suspected militants.

Saturday's violent jailbreak on southern Basilan island came after a series of apparent successes against the Abu Sayyaf, once linked to al Qaeda but which is more notorious for kidnappings.

Late last month, the government announced it had broken up an Abu Sayyaf cell which had been planning major terror attacks in Manila, arresting six suspected militants and seizing explosives.

Two days before the jail break, the military said soldiers killed six Abu Sayyaf members, including a top leader, in a shoot-out in Basilan, which is close to Mindanao.

The mass break-out threatens to undo any boost to Arroyo's image from the Manila arrests as she runs neck-and-neck with movie star Fernando Poe Jr in opinion polls.

It was not the first incident to expose lax security in Philippine jails. Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, a suspected bomb-maker for regional terror group Jemaah Islamiah, walked out of a Manila jail last July before being killed by police three months later.

Local officials said the Basilan escape began after a prisoner's wife smuggled in a gun hidden in a food package. After overpowering several guards and seizing more guns, the prisoners were able to shoot their way out.

"We suspect they are now hiding in the middle part of the island," military spokesman Daniel Lucero said, referring to the prisoners still at large.

"We feel they are now in the process of making contact with their co-members in the Abu Sayyaf," he said.

The military has blamed local officials for the break-out, while the interior ministry and police have said the prison was not under their jurisdiction.

"All this handwashing doesn't reassure the Filipino citizen of his or her safety or the world about our being a safe nation," wrote Max Soliven, publisher of the Philippine Star newspaper.

Many analysts had considered the Abu Sayyaf to be a spent force, weakened by internal feuds and a US-assisted military campaign against the group after the Sept. 11 attacks. The US still has several hundred troops based in Mindanao to train Philippine soldiers in counter-terrorism.

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