About 2,000 troops fanned out Monday on a southern Philippine island to hunt down 31 militants and other inmates who escaped from a jail, as well as Muslim guerrillas whom the military blamed for the daring attack.
Troops killed one fugitive from the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group, while another inmate surrendered, a senior military commander said.
Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino blamed the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front for Sunday’s raid on the Basilan provincial jail. He demanded that the group surrender 10 guerrillas who escaped or helped in the assault that killed a jail guard and one of the attackers.
The main rebel group, which last week resumed peace talks with the government, denied any role but acknowledged at least one member who joined in the attack was killed.
The raid was the latest in back-to-back crises underscoring the complexity of conflicts in the southern Philippines, an impoverished region awash with firearms, outlaws, political warlords and Muslim insurgents.
About 70 gunmen used a sledgehammer and boltcutters to tear a hole in the concrete wall of the jail, which had 40 detainees, then barged inside to spring their comrades. Five Moro rebels and 12 from the smaller Abu Sayyaf extremist group escaped, Basilan Vice Gov. Al Rasheed Sakalahul said.
The rest who fled were common criminals, he said.
While the criminals were expected to surrender, the militants will likely “fight it out to the last drop of their blood,” Dolorfino said. Troops launched offensives in two Basilan hinterland areas where the militants were sighted, he said.
“For these escaped rebels, we have shifted from pursuit to punitive actions,” Dolorfino told The Associated Press.
Police clashed with a small group of fugitives not far from the jail in Basilan’s capital of Isabela on Monday, killing one from the Abu Sayyaf group, Dolorfino said. Another fugitive surrendered and a third fled and was being chased by policemen, he said.
The escapees split into several groups, with the Muslim guerrillas fleeing into their mountainous strongholds in Basilan’s Sumisip and Al-Barka townships, where combat troops were deployed, he said.
Officials offered rewards for the capture of the fugitives and the rebels who helped them escape.
The guerrillas who attacked the jail apparently wanted to spring five of their comrades led by a key commander, Dan Asnawi. He and the four others were detained after being accused in the beheadings of 10 marines during a 2007 clash in Basilan, Dolorfino said.
Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu acknowledged Asnawi was one of their commanders. He said one of the rebels who attacked the jail was Asnawi’s nephew but his action was not authoritized by the rebel leadership.
Kabalu said his group will investigate who among their members took part in the attack so they can be punished. The assault will not affect Malaysian-brokered peace talks between the government and his rebel group, which has been fighting for Muslim self-rule in Mindanao for decades, he said.
The jail break came on the same day tribal gunmen and government-armed former militiamen freed 47 villagers after four days of negotiations with authorities in remote southern Agusan del Sur province.
Under the agreement, the 15 gunmen were turned over to a Roman Catholic bishop while their murder cases, which they had wanted dropped because they stem from a clan feud, are reviewed by a tribal court.
The latest upheaval in the southern Philippines followed the Nov. 23 massacre of 57 people, including 30 journalists and their staff, in Maguindanao province, where Arroyo lifted martial law Saturday but left more than 4,000 army troops to restore order and disarm paramilitary groups.
The killings were blamed on a powerful clan that allegedly ordered government militiamen to slaughter its rival’s family and supporters to prevent being challenged in upcoming elections in May. Ampatuan clan members, under arrest on murder and rebellion charges, have denied involvement.