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Cotabato jail rescue was due to negligence of security forces

The jailbreak could have been prevented, if intelligence reports weren’t ignored.

Kidapawan,  North Cotabato – 158 inmates were sprung from the Amas provincial jail at around 0030H on Wednesday, January 4, 2017. Their liberators, numbering at more than 100 men, are suspected Muslim rebels who stormed the jail where one guard was killed.

Detainees took advantage and escaped during the barrage of gunfire between the jail guards and the suspected Muslim raiders. Army troops also fired mortar rounds at the back of the jail where some of the escapees were believed to be hiding. The firefight lasted for about two hours; the Muslim rebels are believed to be members of the extremist Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

In an interview, Supt. Peter Bonggat Jr., warden of the North Cotabato Jail District, said that a certain Commander Derby led the attack. Commander Derby is a member of the breakaway group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and a former detainee of the said prison; he broke out last year.

MILF and BIFF spokesmen denied their respective groups were responsible for attack, against claims that the operation was a rescue mission to free known members of the BIFF.

MILF spokesperson Von al-Haq said he did not know who the attackers were, and was contacting members for more information. Abu Misry Mama for the outlawed BIFF said not a single member was involved in the jailbreak. If this is the case, then the government is facing another well-organized group who may be composed of both MILF and BIFF rogue elements.

Supt. Bonggat added that it was not a jailbreak; it was a planned attack to rescue certain detainees. Saying: “it’s to rescue their comrades under our custody. It was a rescue operation. Of the 158 escaped inmates, it remains unclear how many have links to their would be liberators.

According to the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), however, the jail had 13 high-risk inmates, seven of which are MILF members. The BJMP insists that the 13 high-risk inmates never left the facility.

On Saturday, authorities reported that of the 158 escaped inmates, 53 have been captured and eight killed, leaving just 97 at large. They emphasized the obstacles in the manhunt were numerous. According to Interior Secretary Mike Sueño, there is no shoot-to-kill order, and that escapees who surrender peacefully would not be harmed.

But how could such an attack be even possible? According to Supt. Bonggat: “We were overwhelmed. The attackers were heavily armed.” He cited a lack of personnel and the secluded location as key factors for the raid’s success.

The jail is located in the provincial capitol compound in Barangay Amas, Kidapawan City. It used to be a dilapidated school located in a secluded forested area. It housed 1,511 inmates and is secured by only 21 guards.

But there may be more to this than being outmanned, outgunned, and outmaneuvered. Sources of SecurityMatters point to the failure of the jail, police, and military authorities in Cotabato province to act accordingly on intelligence reports. It seems that the intelligence community had sufficiently warned the BJMP, the Philippine National Police, and the Army of the plan, which means the jailbreak was preventable.

Felix Capalla (alias Tawtaw), a former intelligence officer at the Regional Operations Center, Far South Mindanao Regional Command, CPP-NPA was detained in the jail and is one of the “mayores.” He had tipped off jail authorities about the planned attack on New Year’s Eve. Supt. Banggot confirmed that they had been on high alert from December 31 to January 1, 2017 and were reinforced by soldiers and police acting on the intelligence report. But the attack did not happen and the personnel were pulled out, leaving the guards outnumbered.

A company of the better-armed and well-trained PNP Special Action Force stationed in the same Police Provincial compound did not come to aid. Philippine Army divisions based in the adjacent municipality also did not deploy troops. This posture manifests the absence of response plan to a default situation, or intelligence tip-off.

The PNP believed that some MILF and BIFF members had combined to stage what is considered to be the worst of three attack-rescue operations against the North Cotabato District Jail. Armed and security forces have to reconfigure coordination and preparedness if they are to squelch any future attacks on penal institutions and other important facilities.