Philippine authorities said Thursday they had captured or killed dozens of men who escaped in the nation’s biggest jailbreak but more than 110 remained on the run in vast farmlands and isolated villages of the nation’s strife-torn south.
Suspected Muslim guerrillas stormed a decrepit jail in the major southern city of Kidapawan on Wednesday, freeing 158 prisoners and killing a guard, in what authorities said may have been a bid to free fellow rebels.
Forty of the inmates had been recaptured by Thursday afternoon, with seven others killed in the manhunt that involved security forces firing mortars at some escapees in remote farmlands and jungles, jail authorities said.
But they emphasised there were many obstacles in the operation.
“This is a very wide area. Aside from sugar, rubber and coconut plantations, there are areas and camps held by rebels that we cannot easily enter,” jail warden Peter Bongngat told AFP.
Thirty-nine of the escapees were accused of rape, while 35 were in jail for murder, according to a list released by prison authorities.
In Kabacan, a farming town about 30 kilometres (18 miles) from Kidapawan, residents tipped off search teams about inmates who were hiding and sleeping in rubber and palm oil plantations, using thick vegetation as cover.
“We are alarmed because (prisoners) are convicted criminals. But what’s good is that our citizens are cooperating,” Kabacan mayor Herlo Guzman told AFP.
The southern Philippines is home to a decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency, as well as extremist gangs that have recently declared allegiance to the Islamic State.
The southern region of Mindanao is the ancestral homeland of the Muslim minority in the largely Catholic Philippines.
The badly overcrowded jail in Kidapawan, 950 kilometres (590 miles) south of Manila, housed about 1,500 inmates. It is a run-down former school building that militants have targeted repeatedly over the past 15 years.
In 2007, Khair Mundos, a Filipino who would later become one of the world’s most wanted accused terrorists escaped along with 48 other inmates. Mundos, with a $500,000 bounty from the US government, was recaptured in Manila seven years later.
– High-value targets –
However Wednesday’s jailbreak was the biggest in the nation’s history, Bureau of Jail Management and Penology spokesman Xavier Solda told AFP.
Solda said 13 “high-value targets” — seven Muslim rebels and six organised crime gang members — had not been able to escape on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, Bongngat said the attackers were believed to be militants who had broken away from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the nation’s largest Muslim rebel organisation which is in peace talks with the government.
The MILF, which has about 10,000 armed followers, has been fighting since the 1970s for independence or autonomy.
The rebellion has claimed more than 120,000 lives although the MILF has in recent years observed a ceasefire as part of the peace process.
MILF spokesman Von al-Haq insisted Thursday that none of its members was involved in the raid, adding the group was willing to coordinate with the government to allow searches in its communities.
“The commander named to be the leader of the raid was 100 percent a notorious criminal. He was never a member of the MILF,” Al-Haq told AFP.
Al-Haq said the commander, known by an alias of Commander Derby, had broken into the jail to release a relative who was the leader of the Muslim inmates.
Al-Haq said the relative and the leader of the Christian inmates were among the first to escape, and remained on the run.