OZAMIZ CITY, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – Members of a local terrorist group escaped the Lanao del Sur Provincial Jail on Saturday, August 27, after 20 fully armed men stormed the prison, located in Marawi City.
"Heavily armed men wielding RPGs, Soviet-made AK 47, M16 rifles and other high-powered weapons stormed Lanao del Sur Provincial Jail in Marawi City Saturday afternoon and freed 8 recently arrested members of an alleged local terror group," police said in a statement Sunday, August 28.
Authorities believe that the attack was carried out by members of the local terrorist gang Maute Group, in their attempt to free their leader Hashim Balawag Maute.
"Clearly this is a rescue operation aimed at freeing their members," Marawi City police chief Chief Inspector Parson Asadil said. "Our accounting showed that 23 prisoners escaped during the assault."
Asadil added that the armed men even carried rocket-propelled grenades during the attack on the provincial jail.
The 8 members of the Maute group were just arrested Monday, August 22, after they were detained for carrying weapons and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Lumbayanague, Lanao del Sur.
Those detained include Maute, the leader of the Maute Group who has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS); Abdul Jabbar Tominaman Macabading; Jamil Batoa Amerul; Muhammad Sianodin Mulok; and Omar Khalil. The men were reportedly involved in various terrorist activities in Lanao del Sur.
They also arrested 3 women, identified as Nasifa Pundug, the alleged wife of Hashim Maute; Hafidah Romato Maute; and Norhanna Balawag Maute.
Lanao del Sur Provincial Police Director Senior Superintendent Agustin Tello said the armed men also took Jail Officer 3 Modasir Manwar as they left the area. Manwar was later freed in Barangay Calocan, Marawi City, 3 hours after the attack.
The attackers also took away one M16 and one M14 assault rifle, and burned a provincial jail vehicle which they used as one of their getaway vehicles.
The group used a total of 4 getaway vehicles, including the jail-owned vehicle, which they all abandoned at the lake shore of Barangay Calocan in Marawi City. The suspects and the escapees then rode motorboats to escape to an unknown location.
"These escapees pose serious threat to public safety and must be prevented from sowing further terror," PNP Regional Director Chief Superintendent Noel Constantino was quoted in the police statement as saying.
The military and the police are conducting pursuit operations.
The Maute group is one of several terror gangs in Mindanao. The group has carried out kidnappings and bombings and is believed to have led an attack on an army outpost in the Mindanao town of Butig in February.
The fighting there lasted a week, leaving numerous fatalities and forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes as helicopter gunships fought off the attackers.
During the Butig fighting the group's members were seen carrying black flags of the ISIS group, and bandannas bearing the jihadists' insignia were found in their base, the military said.
The southern Philippines has been plagued by a Muslim separatist insurgency for over 4 decades, with the conflict leaving more than 120,000 dead.
President Rodrigo Duterte has been pursuing peace talks with the larger, more established Muslim insurgent groups, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Ceasefires with these groups are still in force.
However the smaller groups like the Maute group and the Abu Sayyaf group, are not covered by the ceasefires and are not part of the peace process. – With reports from Agence France-Presse / Rappler.com