MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Dozens of black-clad gunmen armed with grenades and bombs stormed a southern Philippine jail trying to free a detained comrade, but they were repulsed by police in a chaotic night battle that killed three people, officials said Monday.
Fifteen people were wounded, most of them civilians caught in the firefight late Sunday outside Kidapawan's city hall compound and along a key commercial road. Military and police officials blamed former members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but a spokesman for the Muslim rebel group denied the claim.
The attackers fired a grenade into the gate of the Kidapawan city jail in North Cotabato province but missed around 10 p.m. Sunday, sparking a gunfight with guards who were later reinforced by nearby police forces.
At least three people died, including a Red Cross driver who was trying to bring wounded civilians to a hospital, regional police director Chief Superintendent Benjardi Mantele said.
Kidapawan police chief Chino Mamburam told The Associated Press that the attackers were believed to be rogue members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front who wanted to rescue a comrade detained for robbery and other crimes.
Regional military spokesman Col. Leopoldo Galon said about 50 attackers, who were clad in black fatigues, attempted to rescue Datukan Samad, an alleged member of the rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but failed. They then detonated a bomb and fired on civilians to cover their escape and stall the advance of policemen, he said.
The dead included two students who were at a store fired upon by the fleeing gunmen.
"It was an act of terrorism and desperation," Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo said. "They turned on civilians to save themselves."
Robredo said he has long asked court officials to transfer Samad — who has been blamed for robbery, kidnappings and killings — and 15 other high-risk detainees in North Cotabato to a maximum-security police jail in metropolitan Manila.
Mamburam said the assault failed because guards had bolstered security before the attack after being warned by police that Muslim rebels were planning an assault. Jail guards were also rapidly reinforced by police from a nearby station, he said.
Government forces were pursuing the attackers, he said.
Rebel spokesman Von al Haq denied his group was involved in the attack.
He said that the attackers were not members of the Moro group, which has been focusing on yearslong peace talks with the Philippine government and has forged an accord that allows the rebels to help the government track and capture criminals and al-Qaida-linked militants.
Poor security has fostered jailbreaks and bold attacks on Philippine prison and jails, derisively called among the world's "most porous."
In 2009, Muslim guerrillas attacked the provincial jail in another part of North Cotabato to spring another batch of comrades but failed when troops fought back. Two years earlier, gangsters involved in kidnappings stormed the provincial jail and freed 49 inmates, including three who were detained for deadly bombings in the south.