December 13, 2009 / 5:37 AM / 10 years ago

Gunmen storm jail, free 31 prisoners in Philippines

MANILA (Reuters) - Suspected Muslim rebels punched a hole on the wall of a provincial jail on a remote southern island in the Philippines and freed 31 prisoners before dawn on Sunday, security officials said.

They killed one jail guard and wounded another during a 10-minute raid at the main prison on southern Basilan island, Superintendent Abubakar Tulawie, provincial police chief, told reporters.

“We got two of them. Their bodies were abandoned just outside the jail’s perimeter,” Tulawie said, adding the raiders rescued two Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leaders detained there for their role in the beheading of soldiers on Basilan in 2007.

“These two rebel leaders are high-risk prisoners. We have organized a team together with the military units on the island to pursue them. We’ve started an internal inquiry to determine responsibility for the lax security in the jail.”

The MILF, which is seeking broad autonomy in southern Mindano island, is in peace talks with the government. Another Muslim rebel group Abu Sayyaf, once linked to al Qaeda, is also fighting in the south, but it was not clear if any of their jailed members escaped.

Tulawie said the raiders used sledge hammers to make an opening on the prison’s 18-foot high rear perimeter wall and used bolt cutters to destroy the padlock of a jail cell where the two rebel commanders were held before shooting their way out.

Only four of 16 guards were on duty at that time.

The two rebel leaders who escaped were on trial for the murder of 14 soldiers in al-Barka town in July 2007. Twenty-nine other prisoners got out. The one-hectare facility has 65 inmates. Police authorities said it was the second mass jailbreak on the island after 53 inmates escaped during a riot in 2004.

Jailbreaks are common in the Philippines, where many of the more than 1,000 penitentiaries across the archipelago are overcrowded and guards are underpaid.

Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Bill Tarrant

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