Four young officers accused of leading hundreds of troops in a failed 2003 mutiny have escaped from "an army prison, setting off a high-profile manhunt and security alert, the military said yesterday.
The army said it discovered the jailbreak, the second after a similar escape by another officer more than a month ago, at a prison in a Manila army camp late on Tuesday while inmates were being counted.
Army spokesman Major Bartolome Bacarro identified the fugitives as lieutenants Lawrence San Juan, Sonny Sarmiento, Patricio Bumindang and Captain Nathaniel Rabonza. All have excellent combat experience and at least one officer once belonged to an elite anti-terrorist unit trained and armed by the US military.
"We would like to appeal to the public to assist us in locating these fugitives," Bacarro said, warning that they are facing charges of rebellion and "could be dangerous."
Army chief Lieutenant-General Hermogenes Esperon relayed the news to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who ordered the recapture of the officers and an investigation to punish any erring prison officials, Bacarro said.
"I'm embarrassed by the situation. I'm taking full responsibility," Esperon told a nationally televised news conference, but said he would not resign.
The officers were among the core leaders of about 300 troops who in July 2003 occupied the ritzy Oakwood Hotel and a nearby shopping mall in the capital's financial district. They rigged the area with bombs, but surrendered peacefully after about 20 hours.
The government said that action was part of a larger coup conspiracy, but the officers said they were only demanding the resignation of Arroyo and other officials over alleged corruption.
Arroyo has been haunted in recent months by calls to step down over vote-rigging and corruption allegations. She escaped an impeachment bid last September but opposition lawmakers vowed to pursue efforts to remove her this year and coup rumors have continued to swirl.
Shortly after the escape, the military set up checkpoints around the army camp and intensified patrols. The 115,000-strong police force went on nationwide alert and pictures of the four officers were posted in several camps.
Arroyo canceled a number of provincial trips later in the week, but aides said it was unrelated to the jailbreak. In one province she was to visit, where communist guerrillas are active, security officials said they found land mines and homemade bombs, but didn't elaborate.
Esperon said the four officers apparently jumped over a wall using chairs then dashed toward a nearby cemetery. A lawyer for some of the officers, Ruel Pulido, said three of them had protested a plan by the army to transfer them to a military intelligence detention center late on Tuesday.
Esperon said he ordered the transfer because of an intelligence report that some of the officers were planning to escape. He blamed the jailbreak on a "lapse" and said an investigation was under way.