Philippine security forces were on red alert in the capital yesterday as they hunted for four junior officers facing charges over a mutiny in 2003 after they escaped from a detention center at a military camp.
The jailbreak on Tuesday was the latest in a series of escapes that have raised concerns about incompetence, corruption and conspiracy undermining the country's internal security and fight against terrorism.
Three years ago, Indonesian militant Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi walked out of a police camp in Manila and eluded capture for four months before being killed at a police checkpoint in the south.
Last month, a Marine who is among 31 captains and lieutenants facing civilian and military trials over the 2003 mutiny slipped away from guards after a court hearing.
That escape came days after security officials said they discovered an alleged plot to unseat President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who survived the desertion of allies and an impeachment attempt last year over allegations of vote-rigging and graft.
The army chief sought to play down concerns that the escapes were signs of rising unrest in the military, which has spawned a dozen coup attempts since dictator Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown by a "people power" uprising in 1986.
Lieutenant General Hermogenes Esperon said division commanders told him "their company commanders have reported and have pledged their commitment to follow the chain of command."
The escapes were part of orchestrated attempts to embarrass the government by creating perceptions of instability, said Scott Harrison, managing director of the risk consultancy Pacific Strategies & Assessments and a former U.S. intelligence officer.
"Who would pay for them to get busted out of jail? It would have to be someone who wants to create mischief, which would point a finger towards the opposition," he said.
"I don't see anything that would say this is an indication or barometer of a pending coup attempt," Harrison said. "But perception being the ultimate reality, people will tend to lean towards the worst-case scenario or conclusion."
Army officials sacked a general who was in charge of the military camp and questioned guards on duty at the time. Troops were inspecting vehicles at checkpoints around the camp in the Fort Bonifacio area, near the capital's Makati business district.
Raul Gonzales, the justice secretary, said he ordered state prosecutors to petition the court to move the 26 mutiny suspects still in custody at various military camps to a jail in Makati.
An army intelligence officer told Reuters the four soldiers used stacked-up chairs to scale a barbed wire fence just hours before a routine headcount.
But lawyers for the men said they doubted the army's account because the four were complaining of a plan to move them to a maximum security prison cell without a written order from any courts.
Esperon said the planned transfer was justified as the military had information they were plotting an escape.
In July 2003, more than 300 troops seized a luxury apartment building in Makati, criticising Arroyo and other officials for failing to check pervasive graft in the government and military.
The mutiny was put down in less than 24 hours without a shot being fired but there was widespread suspicion the soldiers were used as pawns by Arroyo's political opponents.
About 130 of them, deemed to have been misled into joining, were freed from detention in late 2003. Nearly 200 others were returned to duty last May after a military court ruled they had served sentences on lesser charges while confined to barracks.