Philippine police storm prison to end revolt

Twenty-three people, including three top leaders of an al-Qaeda-linked Islamic group, were killed on Tuesday when Philippine police stormed a maximum-security prison to end a day-old revolt, officials said.

About 300 heavily armed special-forces police firing tear gas and automatic rifles took part in the operation at Camp Bagong Diwa prison in south-eastern Manila, where three prison guards and two inmates were killed in a jailbreak attempt on Monday.

Manila police chief Avelino Razon said three leaders of the Abu Sayyaf kidnap group—Galib Andang, alias Commander Robot; Alhamser Limbong, alias Commander Kosovo; and Nadjmi Sabdulla, alias Commander Global—were among 22 slain prisoners.

One police officer who was part of the initial assault was found dead later.

Late on Tuesday, the Philippine military said it was preparing for possible retaliatory attacks by Abu Sayyaf.

Hazdi Daie, one of the Abu Sayyaf spokespersons inside the prison, warned on Monday that should the authorities storm the prison, “bombings will be heard all over Manila”.

Military spokesperson Colonel Buenaventura Pascual said security forces around the country are bracing for reprisals, especially in Manila and major cities in the southern island of Mindanao.

Metropolitan military chief Lieutenant General Allan Cabalquinto earlier said security forces are on the lookout for “sleeper cells” hiding in Muslim-dominated communities in Manila.

“With the neutralisation of key leaders in Camp Bagong Diwa, the command structure of the Abu Sayyaf group, I believe, is finally broken, particularly in Metro Manila.”

Earlier, Razon told reporters that eight handguns were recovered from cells of Abu Sayyaf prisoners in the four-storey building, along with two hand grenades and improvised firebombs.

Hours after the attack, the smell of tear gas still hung over the jail as police continued to search the cells. Officials said many of the dead Abu Sayyaf members were found in a blood-soaked cell on the ground floor.

President Gloria Arroyo said in a radio speech that “terrorism will never win in the Philippines”.

She said a government team, led by Interior Secretary Angelo Reyes, had “exhausted all peaceful means to resolve the crisis” and force was necessary.

Arroyo said Reyes will conduct a full investigation into the incident, and the country’s jail system will be examined to ensure terrorists are kept inside “permanently and without the chance to do harm until freed by the courts ... if ever”.

“Thank God it is over ...
the terrorists got what was coming to them,” said Arroyo’s press secretary, Ignacio Bunye.

The prison houses most of the suspects believed responsible for the worst attacks by Islamic extremists in the Philippines.

Police wearing gas masks and helmets started storming the four-storey building and retaking it cell by cell and floor by floor at 9.15am local time.

For about two hours, heavy automatic rifle fire could be heard coming from the block holding 471 prisoners, a third of them Abu Sayyaf suspects, as thick clouds of tear gas billowed from windows.

Reyes said the operation had been carried out in an “exemplary” manner but expressed regret at the casualty count.

“I hope this delivers a strong message that anybody who tries to do something like this in the future will be dealt with in the same fashion,” Reyes said.

“They tried to escape. They killed three of our guards and wounded two others,” Reyes said.

Asked why Andang was shot when he had already lost a leg during his capture in 2001, national police spokesperson Leopoldo Bataoil said: “You don’t use your legs to fire a gun.”

Andang, a former separatist Muslim guerrilla in his late 30s, allegedly led an Abu Sayyaf kidnapping raid on the Malaysian resort of Sipadan in April 2000.

The group seized 21 Western tourists and Asian resort workers, shipping them to the Philippine island of Jolo where they were held for several months before being ransomed off for millions of dollars.

Limbong was on trial for the bombing of a passenger ferry on Manila Bay last year that claimed more than 100 lives—the country’s worst militant attack—as well as the kidnapping of several tourists on a resort island in the western Philippines in May 2001.

Two of the three American captives in that raid were killed.—Sapa-AFP