About three million people thronged an annual Roman Catholic procession in the Philippine capital, brushing aside a request from President Benigno Aquino to stay at home amid warnings of a possible terrorist attack.
The feast of the Black Nazarene draws one of the biggest crowds among festivities held in Manila and 161 devotees were treated for injuries and high blood pressure as the crowd pushed forward to touch the revered sculpture of Jesus Christ carrying a cross, the Philippine Red Cross said on its website.
“The procession is moving slowly,” police spokesman Agrimero Cruz said in a mobile-phone message today.
In a hastily arranged press conference yesterday, Aquino said that police and soldiers would bid to secure Manila from any threat of attack and urged the city’s people to help by not attending the festival. The capital has a population of nearly 12 million people.
“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 the briefing. Smaller crowds “will undoubtedly lessen the risk,” he said. Still, “It’s the state’s obligation to protect them to the fullest extent.”
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 yesterday, 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 may be behind the bombings, according to the statement.