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Philippines arrests more militants, tightens security
Updated: 2004-03-31 15:34

Philippine police arrested two more members of an Islamic militant cell suspected of planning bomb attacks in Manila, as the government tightened security in the capital on Wednesday ahead of the Catholic Holy Week.

A police official said the two militants were caught on Sunday while meeting police agents posing as Islamic radicals in Manila. Their capture had not been announced earlier due to a delay in obtaining arrest warrants.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo gestures while addressing the country's prosecutors at their convention in Manila, Philippines, March 30, 2004. Earlier, Arroyo announced the arrests of four members of the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group averting terrorist bombings in metropolitan Manila on the scale of the Madrid attacks. [AP]
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a firm ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, said on Tuesday her government had foiled a "Madrid-level" terror attack on shops and trains in Manila by arresting four suspected Islamic militants and seizing a large amount of explosives.

The suspected plot by members of the Abu Sayyaf group comes ahead of May 10 presidential elections, in which Arroyo is seeking a new term, and three weeks after bomb attacks on Madrid commuter trains killed 191 people.

"The anti-terrorism task force is already tightening up security measures in the metropolis. Our cooperation and vigilance will stop this threat," Arroyo said in a statement.

Officials have not released specific evidence of the arrested men's apparent plan to attack shops and trains.

Analysts have expressed surprise that the Abu Sayyaf, considered a spent force after a U.S.-backed military campaign in its southern Philippine base, was able to plan such an attack.

Police and army say they have been on the highest level of alert for several days because of multiple threats, including the Abu Sayyaf arrests and the 35th anniversary of the founding of the communist rebel New People's Army, which has threatened massive attacks.

A strike by jeepney drivers and the annual surge of air, train and bus travel ahead of Holy Week in the mostly Catholic country are also cause for higher vigilance, the army and police said. The red alert situation would remain until at least Easter. Holy Week begins next Wednesday.

"Police in Manila are on heightened alert because of multiple threats -- the NPA, Abu Sayyaf and the Lenten season, when many people are traveling," Philippine National Police chief superintendent Joel Goltiao told Reuters.

He said all SWAT teams were out on the streets. Police on motorbikes, with a second officer carrying an M-16 semi-automatic rifle on the back of the bike, are a common sight in Manila.

"All army units in Metro Manila have been on red alert since Saturday, and will remain on red alert in the coming days," army spokesman Daniel Lucero said.

Even without a red alert, Manila is one of the most heavily guarded cities in Southeast Asia.

Security guards inspect visitors' bags at the entrance of every major building in the Makati business district as well as at the entrance of many shopping malls.

A spokesman for Philippines Airlines said the Abu Sayyaf arrests had not had a negative impact on travel so far, and that most of its flights were full because of the Holy Week season.

A Singapore travel agent told Reuters that tourist bookings for the Philippines had not been affected in recent days.

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