MANILA, Philippines – The brutal Abu Sayyaf (search) group repeatedly has been declared a spent force, only to bloodily resurrect itself — the latest time in a botched jail break that left 27 dead and sparked fears of retaliation by Al Qaeda-linked (search) terrorists.
Grieving relatives on Wednesday buried 22 Muslim inmates killed when police stormed the maximum-security jail after a 29-hour standoff. Troops, meanwhile, secured the capital and key cities, fearing retaliatory attacks by the terror group.
Among those killed was the alleged mastermind of a mass kidnapping in 2001-02 that left several hostages — including two Americans — dead, and a ferry bombing a year ago that killed more than 100 people in the Philippines' (search) worst terrorist attack.
Relatives of the victims raised clenched fists and yelled "Allahu Akbar!" — God is great — as they carried the bodies in white blankets to a mass grave. A Muslim cleric recited a prayer before relatives pushed earth over the bodies using shovels and hands.
The crisis began Monday morning with suspects from Abu Sayyaf stabbing guards and snatching their guns at the jail in Manila's taguig suburb. Three guards and two inmates were killed.
Trying to avoid further alienating the Muslim minority, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo first allowed negotiators, including Islamic legislators, to work out a deal. The inmates agreed to surrender in return for assurances of safety and media access to vent their grievances, but the deal broke down when they demanded food first.
The raid Tuesday was launched after the inmates missed a 15-minute deadline to surrender; it was portrayed as a success for police.
Yet even as Arroyo congratulated officers for storming the prison, an Abu Sayyaf leader chillingly warned of repercussions. The inmates had warned of bombings if there was an assault on the jail. Few doubt the Abu Sayyaf has the means and willpower to carry them out.
The group, notorious for deadly attacks and ransom kidnappings in which some hostages have been beheaded, claimed responsibility for a trio of nearly simultaneous bombings a month ago in Manila and two other cities that killed eight people and injured 100.
"Of course, that's our concern," national police chief Arturo Lomibao said. "We hope there's going to be no retaliatory strikes from our Muslim brothers because they know what happened here. We tried to resolve it peacefully."
Suspected Abu Sayyaf members led the uprising after one of their members snatched a guard's weapon. It quickly turned into a prolonged standoff with at least 10 of the group's top suspects leading the rebellious inmates.
On Wednesday, Metropolitan Manila Police Chief Avelino Razon blamed lapses by jail officials for the violence, saying some cell gates were unlocked and guards carried firearms when they approached inmates.
He also admitted that jail officials had been warned of a plot by Abu Sayyaf detainees to escape, but not enough was done to prevent it.
Whatever the cause of the uprising, the subsequent police assault to put it down was bound to be seen as heavy-handed in the restive south, where insurgencies for Muslim self-rule have been raging for the last three decades.
"It's about the conditions on the ground in the south that are characterized by poverty and hopelessness," Abubakar Asiri, a lecturer at the University of the Philippines who tracks Abu Sayyaf activities. "It's those conditions that brought young people to join such groups, to use terrorism in the name of Islam. The problem will fester for a long time, as long as there are no jobs and infrastructure."
The government has frequently described the Abu Sayyaf as little more than a desperate band with its leaders on the run from U.S.-backed military assaults. But recently, officials said about 300 members have teamed up with local bandits and militants for training, shelter and sharing of resources and combatants, indicating the fight is far from over.