Philippine President Benigno Aquino warned of a possible terrorist attack during an annual Roman Catholic procession today that is estimated to draw as many as nine million devotees.
“The sad reality of the world today is that terrorists want to disrupt the ability of people to live their lives in the ways they want to, including the freedom to worship,” Aquino said in a hastily called briefing yesterday in Manila. Police and the military will increase security, he said, urging people to stay at home. At least 80 people were injured as crowds pushed forward in a bid to touch the sculpture of Jesus Christ carrying a cross at the start of the procession today, ABS-CBN News reported.
The feast of the Black Nazarene draws one of the biggest crowds among festivities held in the capital, Aquino said. About 3 million people had joined the procession as of 9 a.m., police chief Nicanor Barolome told reporters in Manila.
The Black Nazarene, believed to be more than 400 years old, is paraded from the Quirino Grandstand, where Aquino was sworn in, to the Quiapo Church in downtown Manila. As the procession nears its end, the roads through which the crowds pass become narrower, Aquino said. A bomb attack is one of the scenarios the government is guarding against, he said.
Manila’s 15,000 police officers will all be on duty and will be supported by soldiers, Aquino said, adding that the security will be “visible, very obvious and very thorough.” All backpacks and bags will be inspected, Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo said at yesterday’s briefing.
Six to nine people were under surveillance as police probed the terrorist threat, Robredo said. “There are indications they came from Mindanao, from which group we can’t say yet,” he said.
Mindanao in the southern Philippines is home to the country’s main Muslim separatist organization, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and splinter groups that include Abu Sayyaf.
The government asked mobile-phone companies to temporarily disconnect services along the route as a security measure, Aquino’s spokeswoman Abigail Valte said by e-mail today.
The U.S. issued an “emergency message” today, advising its citizens in the Philippines to avoid areas where the procession will pass. On Jan. 7, it warned its citizens of the risk of terrorist activity in the Philippines, saying attacks could occur even in Manila. Aquino said his warning was unrelated to the first of the U.S. advisories.
Authorities raided “several” suspected terrorist safe houses in Manila and nearby Rizal province with no arrests made, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told reporters today. Militants with ties to the Abu Sayyaf group or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front may be plotting to attack, he said.
A 15-kilometer bridge in Patikul in the southern province of Sulu was damaged by an explosion Jan. 7, three days after a bombing incident in another nearby town, prompting the police to place Sulu on alert, Police Director Felicisimo Khu said in a statement yesterday. Sulu’s Provincial Director Tony Freyra said the Abu Sayyaf group may be behind the bombings, according to the statement.