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Two killed in Manila airport siege; army on alert
( 2003-11-08 14:32) (Agencies)

A Philippine SWAT team stormed the control tower at Manila airport Saturday, killing a former aviation chief and his police bodyguard to end a dramatic early morning siege that revived fears of political instability.

A Philippine policeman stands in front of the control tower at Manila's international airport in the early hours of November 8, 2003. [Reuters]
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo played down concerns the siege could be part of any attempt to undermine her government ahead of elections next May, but said the military had been placed on full alert as a precaution.

"I assure the people and the world that our airport is safe and sound," Arroyo said in a statement.

"The nature, course and magnitude of this incident show that it is not an attempt to take over the government. No unauthorized movements of troops have been detected as of this time anywhere in the country."

The takeover of the tower at the country's busiest airport for about three hours sparked fears of a repeat of a mutiny by several hundred soldiers in July. It is sure to increase investor concerns about political stability and security in the country.

The SWAT team used explosives to blast open the door the two men had barricaded, Superintendent Andres Caro said.

Panfilo Villaruel, a former head of the Air Transport Office, and policeman Richard Gatchalian were armed with handguns, a grenade and other explosives, he said. The weapons were not shown to reporters.

"We are being killed here," Villaruel shouted on live radio with shots and groans in the background. "We surrender."

The bodies of Villaruel, a former pilot and air force officer, and Gatchalian were brought from the tower covered in blankets. Blood dripped onto the floor of a van and the street.

One pair of feet wore brown socks. The other was bare.

The two men and their driver had walked into the tower at Ninoy Aquino International Airport using a security pass for the research Villaruel was doing at the airport, general manager Edgardo Manda told reporters.

They delivered a midnight snack to the five air traffic controllers before asking them to leave and sending the driver home. Negotiations and a visit by current aviation chief Nilo Jatico were rebuffed by Villaruel, officials said.

"We are not terrorists," Villaruel said on live radio. "If I don't do this, there will never be any change in the way the government is run."

The renegade soldiers who staged the July 27 mutiny -- 290 of whom had coup charges against them dropped Friday -- also said they took radical action after their attempts to expose corruption in the military were not pursued.

Arroyo vowed Friday to put down any new plots as a row raged over an attempt by opposition politicians to impeach the nation's top judge. Supporters of ousted president Joseph Estrada planned to hold a large rally in Manila Saturday evening.


Arroyo said the military had set up checkpoints around Manila, but added there were no specific threats.


Security and airport officials said the SWAT team had to storm the tower because there was a flight from the United States due before dawn. As they assessed the damage, the airport's back-up control tower was directing traffic.

"The situation is back to normal," Colonel Efren Labiang, chief of an airport police unit, told Reuters late Saturday morning. "There's no need to worry for those who want to travel."

Several of the control tower's windows were shattered by bullets.

Josephine Lichauco, a former Transport Ministry official who knew Villaruel, said on television he had often voiced concerns to her about widespread corruption. She also questioned whether police had needed to kill the two men.

"He loved this country very much and he was heartbroken over the GMA (Arroyo) government and the corruption going on right now," she said.

Arroyo has waged a high-profile but only partly successful war on graft. She herself has been drawn into corruption allegations against her husband Mike by an opposition senator with presidential ambitions.

The Philippines is consistently ranked by watchdogs like Transparency International as one of the world's most corrupt countries, on a par with Pakistan and Zambia.

Sources at the Defense Department told Reuters that Villaruel tried several times without success to meet Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita to air his feelings about corruption.

A spokesman for Philippine Airlines said one plane from Vancouver was diverted to the southern city of Cebu but all other domestic and international flights were operating normally.

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