Philippine police make mistake

Philippine police thought they had captured a one-armed, horse-riding Muslim rebel leader over the weekend, until the arrested man turned out to be a lookalike missing the wrong arm, the government said on Monday.

Police officials, who had hailed the capture of a "big fish", apologised for the mistake and the government promised an investigation into the wrongful arrest of a man believed to have been Radullan Sahiron, a commander of the Abu Sayyaf group.

Abu Sayyaf, the smallest of four Muslim rebel groups in the southern Philippines, is suspected of links to the regional network Jemaah Islamiah.

It also claimed the worst terror attack in the mainly Roman Catholic country -- the bombing of a ferry near Manila in 2004 that killed more than 100 people.

Some analysts were surprised anyone could be mistaken for Sahiron, who has a bounty of 5 million pesos ($92,000) and lost his right arm as a fighter for the Moro National Liberation Front at the height of the Muslim secessionist rebellion in the 1970s.

The mistakenly arrested man, Antonio Gara, is a farmer, trader and cock-fighting fan who lost his left arm in an accident at a rice mill.

"How can you possibly make a mistake like that? Unless they don't even know which hand is missing," said security analyst and former navy commodore Rex Robles. "It could be poor intelligence or there may be a story behind it, where it is being directed not by police authorities but by Malacanang (the presidential palace)," he said.

The government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is a close ally of the United States and is keen to trumpet successes against Islamic and communist insurgencies.

Philippine troops are trained and advised by U.S. special forces soldiers and the military receives some equipment and funding from Washington, but triumphs have been mixed with many failures, including the escape of key suspects in the past.

"What seemed to have happened was the one caught was a lookalike," Arroyo's spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, said in a radio interview on Monday.

"Even if we consider this a setback, this probably would not weaken our continued fight against terrorism." Sahiron, the Abu Sayyaf commander for Jolo island in the southwestern province of Sulu, is wanted for a string of high-profile kidnappings, including the abduction of 21 tourists and resort workers from Sipadan island in Malaysia in 2000.

President Arroyo had gone on television to announce the arrest of Sahiron, who is a viewed as a folk hero in the style of Robin Hood by some Muslims in Sulu.

Sahiron joined the Abu Sayyaf, listed as a terrorist group by the United States, when the Moro National Liberation Front signed a peace pact with the government in 1996, reports Reuters. I.L.

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