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Filipino military says it warned of militant-led jailbreak

MANILA -- In a major embarrassment for the Philippine government, the military said yesterday that it had warned that suspected militants linked to Al Qaeda were planning a prison escape just days before their breakout.

The escape of 53 inmates Saturday overshadowed President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's assertions that the government is making gains in its campaign against terrorists. She had recently met with US officials to address their fears about new terror threats.

The military said the escape, led by several members of the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militant group, was a setback to the country's counterterrorism efforts. Eleven of the escapees from the jail on the southern island of Basilan were later recaptured, and eight were killed, provincial jail warden Jumadil Sali said.

"A lot of efforts were exerted," said Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Lucero. "This will greatly affect the momentum in our fight against terrorism, particularly in Basilan, but this should not deter us from recapturing them."

Lucero said the military had warned officials at the Basilan jail that the Abu Sayyaf suspects were planning to escape.

Military officials had asked that additional guards be posted at the jail, but it wasn't immediately clear whether that had been done.

Security forces continued a massive hunt for the escapees, who took two rifles and a shotgun and wounded at least three guards.

Arroyo, a leading US ally, said setbacks in the war on terror were inevitable.

"We have had victories, but in every war, things that we don't want to happen do happen," she told reporters.

The escape, one of several in recent months, is occurring at a bad time for Arroyo. She will seek reelection next month, and polls suggest she is in a dead heat with an action-film star.

Officials were trying to determine how many Abu Sayyaf guerrillas were among the escapees. One was a rebel with the nom de guerre "Abu Black," who was implicated in several kidnappings and killings, Sali said.

Last year, Fathur Rohman Al Ghozi, an Indonesian who is a suspected bomb specialist in the regional Jemaah Islamiyah terror network, escaped with two Filipino militants from the tightly guarded national police headquarters in Manila. Police later killed him.

A Western diplomat said yesterday that American officials expressed concern to Arroyo last month about reports of possible threats in the country and urged her to "stay focused" in the fight against terrorists.

The prison escape occurred two days after soldiers outside Isabela killed six alleged Abu Sayyaf members, including Hamsiraji Sali, a guerrilla leaders wanted by Washington for attacks on Americans.

Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Solaiman said Hamsiraji Sali was killed by troops while negotiating his surrender with a military official.

The military said Sali died in a gun battle.

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