KIDAPAWAN—More than 150 inmates of a North Cotabato district jail escaped when 60 suspected Muslim rebels stormed the dilapidated facility in a pre-dawn raid on Wednesday, killing one guard, authorities said.
Kidapawan City Mayor Joseph Evangelista cancelled classes in five public schools following the jailbreak.
The attack added to a long history of daring jailbreaks in Mindanao, home to a decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency as well as extremist gangs that recently declared allegiance to the Islamic State group.
A two-hour-long firefight broke out when more than 100 armed men believed to have been led by a local Muslim rebel commander attacked the jail in Kidapawan city at 1:00 a.m., jail authorities said.
“It’s to rescue their comrades under our custody. It is a rescue operation,” jail warden Peter John Bonggat said.
Bonggat said the attackers were believed to be a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front the nation’s largest Muslim rebel organization that is in peace talks with the government.
At least 158 prisoners had escaped, Bonggat said, although it was unclear how many of those were linked to the attackers or were just other inmates who took advantage of the chaos.
“The [inmates] took chances because of the volume of fire… they used their bedding, piled them on top of each other to escape,” Bonggat said.
Bonggat said the jail, which housed 1,511 inmates, lacked guards and was a dilapidated former school building located in a forested, secluded area.
Three inmates facing charges of illegal possession of explosives and drugs escaped from the jail last year.
Kidapawan is home to various Muslim rebel groups, criminal gangs and communist insurgents.
“We have many Muslim personalities [in the jail] that are members of various organized, syndicated groups,” Bonggat said.
Security forces pursued the assailants and the escapees throughout Wednesday morning, with local authorities reporting up to six had been killed in the hunt.
MILF spokesman Von al-Haq said the group did not know who the attackers were and was contacting its members to get more information.
The MILF has about 10,000 armed followers, but they have been observing a ceasefire with the government as part of the peace efforts.
The southern region of Mindanao is the ancestral homeland of the Muslim minority in the largely Catholic Philippines.
More than 120,000 people have been killed in the rebellion.
While the MILF is aiming for peace, there are various breakaway groups that are determined to continue fighting and have declared allegiance to the IS group.
The Maute group, regarded as one of the most dangerous extremist organizations, freed 23 inmates in a jailbreak last year in a nearby city.
Maj. Gen. Rafael Valencia, commander of the Army’s 10th Infantry Division, said troops have been mobilized to help the police and personnel of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology track down and arrest the fugitives.
He said some of them were in hiding within the operational area of division.
Valencia said helicopters were also deployed to provide support.
He said the jail raid was led by a certain alias Derby.
Valencia said that among the rescued inmates were members of the MILF Special Operations Group, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and high-profile criminals involved in kidnapping and illegal drugs.
The mayor of Kidapawan City cancelled classes in five public schools following the jailbreak.
“We should ensure the safety of our pupils and teachers in the area while tensions and pursuit operations are underway. We will wait until they will declare these areas safe,” he said.
The Davao City Police Office assured the public that they are doing their best to prevent the escaped convicts from entering the city.
DCPO chief Sr. Supt. Michael John Dubria said that they have raised the number of guards in all exit and entry points of the city, which is just three hours away from the district jail.