- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 13, 2009

MANILA — Tribal gunmen freed 47 hostages in the southern Philippines on Sunday, but the region continued to be wracked by violence as suspected Islamic radicals staged a deadly jail break in which dozens of inmates were freed, including comrades accused of beheading marines.

The three-day hostage standoff in Agusan del Sur province and the jail raid on Basilan island come on the heels of a political massacre last month in a nearby frontier region in which 57 people were killed. The back-to-back crises underscore the complexity of conflicts raging in the country’s south, an impoverished region awash with firearms, outlaws, political warlords and Muslim insurgents.

The remaining 47 hostages freed were among the more than 75 people, including children, who were snatched Thursday by gunmen trying to evade police serving warrants for a string of charges, including murder.

The kidnappers’ jungle encampment had been surrounded by troops and snipers. Vice Governor Santiago Cane of Agusan del Sur said the gunmen — former government-armed militiamen — gave up their hostages and weapons after negotiators pledged not to have them arrested on the past charges or the abductions.

Several women and children were freed immediately after the kidnapping, leaving those still held crammed in small bamboo huts that leaked when it rained. Some had fever when they walked free.

“I’m happy that it’s over,” said 35-year-old Josafer Bautista, who was taken with the other freed hostages for a checkup at a hospital in Agusan del Sur’s capital of Prosperidad, about 515 miles southeast of Manila.

The gunmen still have to be investigated and undergo questioning before they will be turned over to a Roman Catholic bishop while their murder cases are reviewed by a tribal court, regional police Commander Lino Calingasan said.

Joebert Perez, the leader of the hostage-takers, denied the murder charges, which arose from a violent land dispute with a rival clan.

Government negotiators, invoking a law that protects the rights of ethnic groups, agreed to Mr. Perez’s demand to have his case handled by a tribal court instead of a regular tribunal. Police promised to disarm his rivals, whom Mr. Perez has accused of killing some of his relatives, officials said.

On southern Basilan island, a new security dilemma unfolded early Sunday when about 70 suspected Islamic radicals stormed their way into the provincial jail with a sledgehammer, bolt cutters and guns, provincial Vice Governor Al Rasheed Sakalahul said.

They freed several insurgents, including a rebel commander and another guerrilla accused of involvement in the beheading of 10 marines in a 2007 clash. The jail assault, in which a total of 31 inmates were freed, sparked a brief clash that killed a jail guard and one of the attackers, he said.

Among those who escaped were five militants from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a large Muslim rebel group engaged in peace talks with the government, and 12 from the smaller but more violent Abu Sayyaf group, which has been linked to al Qaeda, regional military commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino said.

“All these are high-risk prisoners,” Mr. Sakalahul said, adding that troops, backed by air force helicopters, were closing in on some of the fleeing inmates. None had been caught by late Sunday.

Meanwhile, more than 4,000 army troops backed by special police forces continued a massive crackdown on a powerful clan that has been blamed for last month’s massacre of 57 people, including 30 journalists and their staff, in Maguindanao.

More than 100 militiamen loyal to the clan were being hunted for allegedly helping with the killings.

The involvement of former and active militiamen in the hostage-taking and the Maguindanao massacre have sparked calls for the disbanding of paramilitary forces, which have been armed by the government to help in counterinsurgency assaults.

The militias, drawn from the ranks of the unemployed, landless farmers, former rebels and ex-soldiers, have become notorious for abusing civilians, looting homes or ending up as private armies of political warlords.

The underfunded military, one of Asia’s weakest, has found itself in a dilemma, fearing that disarming the some 55,000 militiamen — considered crucial “force multipliers” — will undermine the ability of its 120,000 troops to combat Muslim and communist insurrections and the threat posed by al-Qaeda-linked militants.

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