Manila, July 18, 2003 By Marichu Villanueva (Star) President Arroyo warned yesterday she would not hesitate to implement a top-to-bottom revamp of the Philippine National Police, and ordered its officials "to shape up or ship out."

"The PNP leaders should shape up... I will not hesitate to undertake a revamp if no results are forthcoming," Mrs. Arroyo said.

The President made the statement following the escape of Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, bomb-maker of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) Islamist group, from his detention cell at Camp Crame last Monday.

Mrs. Arroyo said PNP chief Director General Hermogenes Ebdane Jr. and other top PNP officials should take responsibility for the security foul-up, adding she would not tolerate any more excuses.

"I hold the PNP chief and the entire leadership of the PNP accountable for resolving the problem of police corruption once and for all because it is already eating into the security of our nation," Mrs. Arroyo said in her brief remarks during the inauguration of the regional consular office of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Tacloban City yesterday.

Mrs. Arroyo also took the occasion to respond to international criticisms on the "entrenched corruption" in the Philippine bureaucracy and police force, which the Australian press had blamed for the escape of Al-Ghozi.

"I acknowledge the serious problem of corruption in the police organization and I am making no excuses for it. We must face the truth and do something about it," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo said the police could no longer say that only "a few bad eggs" were behind the misdeeds, and that "the people are tired of these worn-out explanations."

There is growing clamor for the sacking of Ebdane for the escape of Al-Ghozi, who was merely the latest of several high-profile figures to slip out of the PNP headquarters jail.

During an interview with ANC’s "On Line" Wednesday night, Ebdane reiterated his willingness to take full responsibility and resign his post for the latest security foul-up.

"The buck stops with me and no higher," Ebdane said. "If I have to retire early, so be it. But I won’t just resign and leave this problem behind me. I have to move forward and take the remaining kilometer to the finish line and solve this problem once and for all."

Al-Ghozi’s escape has prompted a region-wide security alert for fear of a fresh attack similar to the bombings on the Indonesian resort island of Bali last October that left 202 dead.

There were no signs that Al-Ghozi forced his way out of the jail, raising suspicions that he was helped out.

Four guards, including the duty officer at the time of the incident, have been charged with criminal negligence. Five others are under investigation.

An investigating body was also formed to determine the culpability of the police officials in Al-Ghozi’s escape and recommend administrative charges against them.

Al-Ghozi had earlier confessed to his role in a wave of deadly Manila bombings in 2000 as well as to securing explosives in a plot to bomb Western embassies in Singapore. He was earlier sentenced to 17 years in jail in the Philippines for possessing explosives.

Al-Ghozi fled with Abdulmukim Ong Edris and Omar Opik Lasal, alias Meram Abante, both suspected members of the bandit Abu Sayyaf group, from their maximum security cell in Camp Crame last Monday.

In June last year, Faisal Marohombsar, the leader of the Pentagon kidnap-for-ransom gang and two of his followers, escaped from Camp Crame detention center.

Barely four months later, suspected drug lord Henry Tan, arrested in 2001 in Zambales for possession of 350 kilograms of shabu worth an estimated P700 million, also escaped. Tan fled after sawing off the iron window grills of his detention cell.

"It is highly probable that this problem is also related to the escape of no less that five prominent detainees, including that of (Khaddafi) Janjalani, from Camp Crame over the past ten years," Mrs. Arroyo said, referring to the escape of the Abu Sayyaf leader in 1995 who later joined his comrades in a kidnapping spree beginning in the year 2000.

 ‘50-50 chance’

In the same interview with ANC, Ebdane disclosed Al-Ghozi and his two co-detainees are still hiding in Metro Manila and are trying to find their way out.

"As of now we believe that they are still around trying to find a way out and we hope we can nail them before they get out of Metro Manila," Ebdane said.

Ebdane gave even chances in recapturing the three fugitives and said the PNP has prioritized its operations.

"I’d have to say we have to prioritize Al-Ghozi since he is an Indonesian terrorist and his possible escape from the country will really worry the international community because the Jemaah Islamiyah, which have connections with al-Qaeda, will again have the advantage of the services of this fellow," he said.

Ebdane gave a rating of "five," in a scale of one to 10 the PNP’s chances of recapturing the three fugitives.

While the "objective" is to re-arrest Al-Ghozi and the two Abu Sayyaf bandits, Ebdane admitted the urgent need to attend to other problems within the police organization such as "construction anomalies" in detention cells and the "definition of responsibilities" of keeping high-profile detainees in custody.

Ebdane said the construction of a "special detention center for terrorists inside Camp Crame" is already underway as ordered by the President.

Responding to Mrs. Arroyo’s call, Ebdane also said the PNP is open to being subjected to cleansing, relief and perhaps even "early retirement" if it is determined in the investigation that the police organization is really at fault.

"As I’ve said I have taken full responsibility for this one," he said.

After learning of the escape, an angry Mrs. Arroyo ordered the immediate filing of charges against police officials involved "up to the highest level of command responsibility probable" and the creation of a single, maximum-security jail for high-profile prisoners.

The government also offered an P8-million bounty for the recapture of the escapees.

Ebdane, meanwhile, said it was possible that Al-Ghozi and the two Abu Sayyaf bandits may have escaped even earlier than initially believed.

He admitted there was a series of inactions and violations of procedures from the time it was found out that the trio bolted out until after the escape was reported to the PNP Intelligence Group.

"Another investigation was conducted (by the Intelligence Group) before they made a final report. It was only some time past 1 p.m. when I was informed about it. I still had to ask questions so when it reached the ears of the President it was about 1:20 or 1:25 p.m.," Ebdane explained.

"That was the belief (that they escaped around 3 a.m.) but there might be other possibilities. They might have gone out even earlier," he said. He did not elaborate.

Ebdane said those involved in the escape of Al-Ghozi and the two Abu Sayyaf bandits "committed an act of treason."

"While treason is a crime during times of war, let us not forget that the world is in the midst of global war on terror," he said.

PNP community relations chief Director Ricardo de Leon said Al-Ghozi’s escape is no ordinary jailbreak. "To me, personally, it is not an ordinary jailbreak, an ordinary corruption. It is even a form of treason to assist an international terrorist because we are into war against terrorists," De Leon said.

Ebdane, meanwhile, recognized the fact that "money is almost always the number one motivation," which he said could have led to the escape of Al-Ghozi.

The PNP chief, however, stressed that despite the low salaries of policemen, no amount of money could buy back the privilege of being a cop. - With Ann Corvera, Christina Mendez, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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