JI fugitive hunt : Manila offers bounty

Govt puts up $166,000 reward in bid to capture bomb expert after jailbreak; South-east Asian countries on high alert.

The Philippine government has offered a five-million-peso reward (S$166,000) for information leading to the capture of Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, as governments in South-east Asia launched a massive manhunt for the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) bomber.

The bounty was announced as a livid President Gloria Arroyo ordered the immediate filing of criminal charges against Al-Ghozi’s custodians over Monday’s jailbreak by the senior JI operative and two Abu Sayyaf members.

The three prisoners reportedly slipped out before dawn from their cell in Camp Crame, the national police headquarters.

Mrs Arroyo yesterday also ordered the creation of a single, maximum-security jail for high-profile prisoners. ‘Camp Crame is gaining notoriety for its very porous detention centres, and it is becoming hard to believe that these escapes of heinous criminals are the result of ordinary laxity,’ she said. ‘We must pin the culprits down and find a permanent solution to this problem.’

Earlier, six police officers were relieved of their posts, including Superintendent Jesus Verzosa, who heads the national police intelligence group that had custody of Al Ghozi.

Authorities here believe that it was an inside job. ‘Personally, I believe that money changed hands, in one way or the other, ‘ said national police chief Hermogenes Ebdane.

Al-Ghozi was arrested last year in Manila’s Quiapo district on information provided by Singapore police, and later sentencedto 17 years for illegal possession of explosives.

He was to face trial later this month for a series of bombings in Manila in 2000 that killed 22 people.

Australia and the United States Embassy here warned of fresh terror attacks with Al-Ghozi joining other key JI members at large.

‘Obviously, the escape of three terrorists yesterday here in Manila is a serious setback,’ said visiting Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Despite the arrests following last October’s Bali blasts, he noted that the JI still posed a threat with its extensive network and the failure to nab significant members like operations chief Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali.

‘The JI and other groups are still likely to have the capacity to mount further terrorist attacks,’ he warned.

A military spokesman said yesterday that troops in the southern Philippines had been ordered to intercept Al-Ghozi if he tried to make contact with Filipino-Muslim separatists.

Flights bound for Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia were also being monitored over fears that Al-Ghozi might not just be trying to cross borders but could also attempt a hijacking.

Malaysia has put its maritime patrol on full alert to check all boats and passengers entering the country.

But observers in Jakarta said that with its porous borders and sprawling size, Indonesia would probably be Al-Ghozi’s ‘first choice’. There were also JI cells that could offer him safe haven and the backup for a terrorist strike.

While a Philippine military spokesman said yesterday that Al-Ghozi could already have slipped out of the country, a senior Indonesian intelligence official thought otherwise.

‘The most likely scenario is that he could already have got sanctuary in the Abu Sayyaf camp and is using it as a transit base before trying to enter Indonesia or any other country,’ he said.

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