ONE LAST CHANCE FOR EDBANE

Manila, July 19, 2003 By Marichu Villanueva (Star) One last chance.

President Arroyo gave yesterday embattled Philippine National Police chief Director General Hermogenes Ebdane Jr. a chance to redeem himself amid the backlash from the escape of one of Southeast Asia’s top terrorists from PNP custody.

Ebdane verbally offered to resign but it was turned down by the President. Instead, Mrs. Arroyo ordered him to personally lead a task force that would "exclusively" hunt down Indonesian bomber Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, who escaped last Monday with two suspected Abu Sayyaf members from their detention cell at the PNP headquarters at Camp Crame in Quezon City.

"The PNP chief will lead a task force exclusively for hunting down Al-Ghozi. We shall not stop until the terrorist leader is accounted for," Mrs. Arroyo said.

"We are not making excuses and we urge the people to act on the side of caution and vigilance. The threat of terrorism is ever present and must be met collectively," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo brushed off calls to sack Ebdane over the escape despite international criticisms generated by Al-Ghozi’s jailbreak.

Al-Ghozi has admitted being a bomb maker for Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which has been linked to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terror network. The Abu Sayyaf has also been linked to al-Qaeda.

Al-Ghozi was convicted last year after confessing that he used part of a huge explosives cache to blow up a Light Railway Transit (LRT) commuter train and other targets in Metro Manila on Dec. 30, 2000. The attacks killed 22 people and wounded over a hundred others.

He said he planned to ship the rest of the explosives to Singapore as part of a JI plot to blow up Western embassies there.

Angered by the escape, Mrs. Arroyo warned of a top-to-bottom revamp of the PNP, specifically directing her warning to the PNP leadership to "shape up or ship out" if they fail to stamp out corruption in the police force.

Pummeled by criticisms following the escape, Ebdane expressed his willingness to resign and has reportedly submitted his resignation letter to Mrs. Arroyo.

But Mrs. Arroyo virtually squelched rumors that she accepted Ebdane’s resignation over the series of escape incidents in Camp Crame since he took over the top PNP post last year.

Instead, she wanted Ebdane to lead the pack to hunt down Al-Ghozi and the two Abu Sayyaf bandits.

The United States and Australia — leaders of an international campaign against terrorism — have expressed dismay over the Indonesian’s embarrassing escape. Singapore has also expressed concern.

"We’re not giving any false assurances to our people and the international community, but we assure that the government will leave no stone unturned in the manhunt and in the investigation on the circumstances that led to the escape," Mrs. Arroyo told delegates of Mindanao Island Conference held yesterday at the Century Park Sheraton hotel in Manila.

"We understand the position of the United States and other countries and we ourselves are concerned over the safety of their nationals as well as that of our own," she said in an earlier statement.

’Al-Ghozi still here’

Mrs. Arroyo also expressed her confidence that Al-Ghozi is still holed up somewhere, trying to figure how to slip out of the country.

As if to bolster Mrs. Arroyo’s belief, there are intelligence reports that Al-Ghozi and his two Abu Sayyaf cohorts are still in Metro Manila.

According to National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) chief Deputy Director General Reynaldo Velasco, Al-Ghozi is still in Metro Manila planning to carry out bomb attacks aimed at further embarrassing the government.

"As far as the NCRPO is concerned, Al-Ghozi is still in Metro Manila and we are intensifying all our efforts to recapture him," Velasco said.

More particularly, the Western Police District (WPD) said they have received information that Al-Ghozi was spotted at the Islamic Center in Quiapo, Manila yesterday.

Checking out the "sightings," some 300 fully armed WPD personnel swooped down on two areas in the Muslim community but ended up arresting 15 suspected drug users in Globo de Oro and "Little Vietnam" areas.

"We received intelligence information Thursday night, indicating that Al-Ghozi was sighted in the Quiapo area," said WPD spokesman Chief Inspector Gerry Agunod.

"Although the intelligence information was not specific on the location of Al-Ghozi but the WPD had to verify it just then," Agunod said.

Mrs. Arroyo noted the possibility that Al-Ghozi was not able to sneak out of the country to complete his escape.

National Security Adviser Roilo Golez told Radyo ng Bayan yesterday that authorities have reasons to believe that while Al-Ghozi might have already left Metro Manila since his escape last Monday, he was not able to leave the Philippines and could be hiding somewhere in Mindanao.

On instructions of Mrs. Arroyo, Golez said he has coordinated with his counterpart officials in Malaysia, Indonesia and other anti-terrorism partners in the region to seek their assistance in terms of intelligence sharing.

On the other hand, Sen. Rodolfo Biazon said the Philippine embassy in Jakarta has not received any reports that Al-Ghozi has fled back to his home country.

20 intel men dismissed

Meanwhile, 20 police intelligence officers and men were ordered relieved yesterday afternoon from their respective posts in the wake of the mysterious and humiliating escape of Al-Ghozi and company.

Those ordered relieved were mostly classified as non-performing personnel of the PNP-Intelligence Group.

Chief Superintendent Arturo Lomibao, chief of the PNP Directorate for Intelligence, was meeting yesterday with top PNP-IG officials for a planned complete overhaul of the unit.

Those who were ousted from their respective posts were not given a new assignment, rather told to report to the PNP-Headquarters Support Service, a unit for those on floating status.

"More heads will roll," a Camp Crame insider said.

During investigators’ reenactment yesterday of the great escape, what was obvious was the laxity and carelessness of the jail guards, and the detention cell was so poorly constructed that the door could be bent manually.

"I saw it when I investigated. I was really shocked as well," Interior Secretary Jose Lina said.

Al-Ghozi and the two Abu Sayyaf members escaped from their detention cell early Monday with no signs of a forced breakout.

Police officials, meanwhile, admitted that an Abu Sayyaf suspect and former detainee had been allowed to work as a janitor in the jail and had possibly helped the three others escape.

Criminal Investigation and Detection Group chief Director Eduardo Matillano said that the former detainee, Abu Ali, who is a state witness on an explosives case, had confessed that several weeks before the escape he had provided Al-Ghozi with advice on fleeing the jail.

Abu Ali had earlier been freed on bail. Police are studying whether to file new charges against him.

Lina said the escape could "be plain stupidity (or) it can be a grand conspiracy."

He added, however, it was too great a coincidence that security would be so lax as to allow Al-Ghozi to flee when Australian Prime Minister John Howard was visiting Manila.

The CIDG admitted Wednesday that one guard was asleep and another was out shopping when Al-Ghozi fled the police jail, sparking a regional security alert.

For his part, Sen. Manuel Villar claimed the escape spawned many speculations on how it was done, but it remained hinged on the corruption in the PNP.

"The corruption issue is already a given but the escape in itself is open to a lot of speculations as who was really behind it," Villar said.

Villar pointed out the wide range of angles, including the possibility that the escape was staged to divert attention from the government campaign against illegal drugs.

On the other hand, Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay said the sacking of PNP chief Director General Hermogenes Ebdane would help restore the people’s confidence in the police.

"Immediate and decisive action by Malacañang is required to show the international community and our people that we mean business. Otherwise, all the gains of the President from her stance against international terrorism will be for naught," he said. - With reports from Perseus Echeminada, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Edith Regalado, Jaime Laude, Jose Rodel Clapano, AFP


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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