Suspected Muslim guerrillas used a grenade launcher to punch a hole in a jail wall Friday, then freed three suspected bombers and dozens of other inmates, officials said.
At least 25 men with grenade launchers and rifles destroyed the padlocks of six cells after they blasted their way into the overcrowded North Cotabato provincial jail in southern Kidapawan city, allowing 48 inmates to escape, deputy jail warden Redentor Marasigan said.
Four guards desperately put up a defense by opening fire on the attackers, setting off a brief clash that wounded at least one inmate, Marasigan told The Associated Press by telephone.
The guards were quickly overwhelmed by the attackers, who used an M203 grenade launcher to gain entry into the one-story building, he said.
‘Overwhelming number and firepower’
"My men couldn't do anything against their overwhelming number and firepower," Marasigan said.
After forcing open the cells, they herded out three inmates being tried for alleged involvement in a 2003 bomb attack, along with dozens of other Muslim inmates, he said.
They fled toward a hilly forested area at the back of the jail, which houses more than 780 inmates — about double its capacity, Marasigan said. Most inmates refused to join the escape, he said.
Provincial jail warden Noli Pinol said in a report to the governor that some 60 armed men joined the initial attack at the back of the jail, then 20 to 25 men in fatigues went into the jail compound. The attackers pulled detainees out and warned others they would be killed if they resisted, he added.
Of the 48 escapees, at least 12 were facing murder charges, including six charged with multiple murders, while others were facing kidnapping and other serious crimes, he said.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front involved?
North Cotabato Gov. Emmanuel Pinol told The AP that the attackers may have been Muslim separatist guerrillas from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, adding that troops and police have launched a massive manhunt.
Pinol said the escapees included a locally prominent Muslim rebel commander, Kule Mamagong, who was being detained for his alleged role in an Oct. 10 bombing that killed eight people and wounded dozens in Makilala town, near Kidapawan.
Marasigan, however, said a quick check showed Mamagong did not join the jail break.
Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu denied the MILF attacked the jail and said his group was ready to be investigated. He said his group was checking whether some of the escapees belonged to his group.
The MILF, which has been fighting for self-rule in the southern region of Mindanao, has an estimated 11,000 armed fighters, some in rebel strongholds in North Cotabato.
It has been engaged in Malaysian-brokered peace talks with the government and has forged a cease-fire.
Pinol said he has long asked the government to confine inmates accused of serious crimes like bombing, kidnapping and terror attacks in special, heavily secured detention buildings because poorly guarded rural jails are vulnerable to attacks.
Jail breaks are common in the Philippines because of dilapidated facilities, which are often derisively described as among the most porous in the world, and corruption among some guards.