MANILA, (Reuters) – Suspected Muslim rebels stormed a jail in the southern Philippines early on Friday with grenades and rockets, blasted a hole in its wall and helped 46 prisoners escape, authorities said.
Some of those who escaped were men arrested for bomb blasts in the volatile Mindanao region of the south, where at least four Islamic separatist groups operate.
“We were caught with our pants down,” said provincial governor Emmanuel Pinot. “I have ordered police to shoot these very dangerous people if they will resist arrest. They are better dead than a menace to our communities.”
At least 25 heavily-armed men attacked the jail in Kidapawan City, 960 km (600 miles) south of Manila, and freed the prisoners in a 15-minute operation, said Federico Dulay, police chief of the North Cotabato province.
Forty-six of the 789 prisoners housed there escaped, he said. Two people were hurt, including a jail guard.
Philippine security officials said a rogue faction within the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Muslim separatist group in the largely Catholic Philippines, was behind the attack.
Dulay said the militants mounted the raid on the provincial jail to free 14 “high value prisoners” who were involved in bomb attacks in the south in 2003. “We received reports that the group commandeered a mini-bus hours after the raid and was believed to be headed to the rebels’ hideout in Liguasan marsh,” Dulay said, ordering his troops to set up checkpoints to intercept the escapees.
MILF leaders denied any role in the raid, saying they were committed to the peace process and would not do such “foolish moves” to hurt an already shaky ceasefire and negotiations to end nearly 40 years of rebellion in the south. “We’re definitely not involved,” said Von al Haq, head of the MILF’s ceasefire panel. “We don’t rescue prisoners and we’re not going to take any risk and waste the gains of the peace talks.”
Talks between the MILF and the government have been stalled since May amid disagreements over the size and wealth of a proposed homeland for about three million Muslims in the south of the mainly Catholic country.
Late on Friday, government troops attacked MILF positions elsewhere in North Cotabato when rebels tried to regroup, an army source, who declined to be named, told Reuters. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
“Fighting is still ongoing,” the army source said, adding the clash started at 0800 GMT.
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu complained that their forces were attacked while repositioning in their communities in Midsayap town. He said his group had asked Malaysian peace monitors to intervene to avert an escalation of violence.
Fighting frequently breaks out between the two sides. The latest incident was last week, when six people were killed in a gunbattle also in Midsayap between troops and rebels.