AFP-PNP place Mindanao under highest alert

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — POLICE and military officials have placed Mindanao under “extreme critical alert”—the highest of a four-step public terror warning system—after three bombings this week left 12 people dead and the region braced for more attacks.

“We are on full operations mode,” Armed Forces Chief Hermogenes Esperon Jr. told reporters.

He said almost 60,000 troops, half the entire military, were now on duty in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago.

Raising the alert level to extreme signals the government is bracing itself for more terror attacks from Muslim extremists. Metro Manila remained on moderate alert.

No soldier or officer was allowed to go on leave while the alert remained, Esperon said.

He said it was likely that the Al Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah groups would continue attacking targets in the south.

Both groups, which are on the US government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, have been blamed for a series of bombings on Tuesday and Wednesday that killed 12.

The threat of more attacks has forced the United States, Britain, Australia and Japan to issue new travel advisories.

Esperon said more roadblocks would be put up in the south and intelligence gathering would be intensified.

A massive manhunt for Abu Sayyaf leaders and Jemaah Islamiyah bombers Dulmatin and Umar Patek would be stepped up in Sulu, he said.

That operation alone has tied up more than 5,000 troops in dense jungle to capture an estimated 200 militants.

Esperon said the Abu Sayyaf’s strength had fallen to about 420 members from a high of more than 1,000 in 2000.

Security analysts have said that about 30 mostly Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah militants, including Dulmatin and Patek, were now in the south.

Dulmatin’s wife was arrested last week and, under questioning, confirmed intelligence information that the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah were plotting to hit more targets in coming days.

The Abu Sayyaf was responsible for the country’s worst terrorist attack in 2004, when its fighters bombed a passenger ferry and killed over 100 people.

It’s fighters are also wanted for a series of high-profile kidnappings and murders, including those of two Americans seized in 2001.

Jemaah Islamiyah is believed to be Al Qaida’s Southeast Asian arm and is suspected of being behind the October 2002 and 2005 bombings in Bali, Indonesia, that killed more than 200 people.

The places being watched by security forces include the southern port city of Zamboanga, where a weeklong Christian religious festival ended Thursday with a public parade, police officials said.

In 2002, suspected Abu Sayyaf guerrillas detonated a bicycle bomb during a religious festival at Fort Pilar in Zamboanga, killing one civilian and wounding 12 others.

Fort Pilar is a complex that includes the centuries-old remains of a Spanish fort, a shrine to the Virgin Mary, and an open-air worshipping area where mass is celebrated.

But the Palace played down an accusation from North Cotabato Gov. Emmanuel Piñol that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front was involved in this week’s attacks.

“There is no report that would link the MILF—and even its so-called special operations group—to the bombings,” Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said.

He said all the evidence so far pointed to the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah.

The government and the MILF are in peace talks that were recently stalled over a rebel demand for more territory.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had asked the joint ceasefire committee to help identify and stop the bombers.

But Piñol yesterday insisted that the MILF was involved. He challenged the group to surrender one of its sub-commanders, Basit Usman, the man he accuses of leading the bomb attacks.

The MILF has consistently denied any role in the bombings.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez said those who could identify the bombers would be covered by the Witness Protection Program.