Muslim rebels who have resumed peace talks with the Philippine government said Monday they were not behind a deadly jail break in the country’s volatile south that freed 31 criminals and guerrillas, including militants accused of beheadings.
About 70 attackers used a sledgehammer and bolt cutters Sunday to punch a hole in the provincial Basilan jail and spring 31 people, including alleged hard-core members of the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group, officials said.
A guard and one of the attackers were killed as security forces dispatched helicopters to help track down the fleeing inmates, said Basilan Vice Gov. Al Rasheed Sakalahul.
Among those who escaped were five members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main separatist group negotiating an autonomy for minority Muslims, and 12 from the smaller but more violent Abu Sayyaf, notorious for kidnappings, beheadings and bombings, said regional military commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino.
The fugitives included Dan Asnawi, a Moro rebel commander, and another guerrilla accused of beheading 10 marines during a 2007 clash between troops and a combined force of Abu Sayyaf and Moro rebels on Basilan Island, said marine spokesman Maj. Joel Lazo.
Eid Kabalu, spokesman for the Moro group, said the rebels were not involved in the beheadings or Sunday’s jail break. The Moro rebels and the Abu Sayyaf have little contact, but the military says they sometimes cooperate on Basilan because some family and clan members end up on both sides.
Kabalu said only one escaped inmate was a Moro rebel and the rest were Abu Sayyaf fighters or common criminals.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s spokesman, Cerge Remonde, said the jail break would not affect peace talks with the Moro rebels. Talks resumed last week after a 16-month hiatus when the Philippine Supreme Court threw out a preliminary peace deal amid renewed clashes.
The jailbreak 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.