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Terror alert at Feast of Black Nazarene

A very tempting target, Aquino says of procession


01:35 AM January 9th, 2012


BLESSING RITES. A replica of a centuries-old black statue of Jesus Christ, known as the Black Nazarene, is carried by devotees during the blessing and procession of the icon’s replicas in Manila on Saturday. AP

In an unprecedented alert, President Benigno Aquino III on Sunday warned of a possible attempt by terrorists to attack—and even bomb—Monday’s celebration of the Feast of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila, saying the millions of devotees expected to attend the procession presented a “very tempting” target.

At a press conference, which was unusually held on a Sunday, Mr. Aquino said he had ordered security forces to be on high alert and that risks would be lessened if people stayed at home.

He specifically appealed to them not to bring “cell phones, weapons, fireworks” during the procession because a bomb could be detonated through cellular phones.

Organizers said they expected anywhere from eight to nine million people to take part in the yearly procession, which is to start at 8 a.m. from Quirino Grandstand at Rizal Park to Quiapo Church, passing through Taft Avenue, Claro M. Recto Avenue and certain side streets.

The 15,000-strong police force in Metro Manila has been placed on full alert.

It was not immediately clear if Mr. Aquino’s warning was related to a travel advisory to American citizens issued by the US Department of State three days ago stating there were “risks of terrorist activity in the Philippines” and that “terrorist attacks could be indiscriminate and could occur in any area of the country, including Manila.”

Amid the warnings, devotees are still expected to flock to Quiapo Church to fulfill a “personal covenant” with the dark-skinned Christ, a Catholic priest said.

Fr. Anton Pascual, executive director of the Church-run Radio Veritas, said the celebration of the Feast of the Black Nazarene had withstood the test of time and even “calamities, both human and cosmic threats.”

“No terrorist will strike fear in the hearts of the faithful devotees,” Pascual told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in a text message.

He said: “(The Black Nazarene) is their miracle worker, brother in suffering and there’s a personal covenant between (Him) and the devotees that no threat, whether real or perceived, will prevent them from going to Quirino and Quiapo.”

Safety of devotees

Speaking on government radio and television as his security officials stood beside him, Mr. Aquino said he was issuing the warning to ensure the safety of the devotees expected to participate in the procession.

The President made the announcement after making a surprise inspection at Quiapo Church. He then met with security officials, led by Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, canceling his scheduled trip to Davao del Norte.

The President said he was apprised of “intentions to create disruptions” in Metro Manila during the Black Nazarene feast day.

“Previously, the difference between their intentions and capabilities has been quite pronounced. The possibility prompts us to warn you of the risk in attending the procession,” he said at a hastily called news conference in Malacañang.

“I call on our fellow citizens to exercise the maximum vigilance and discipline leading up to, and during, the procession. Report any and all suspicious behavior to the authorities, or call 117,” Mr. Aquino said.

No cell phones

He asked devotees not to bring cell phones, weapons and fireworks, adding that people who would bring or use fireworks would be arrested.

“Monitor and obey our warnings and instructions. This is for the safety and well being of all,” he said.

WARNING. President Aquino warns of a possible terror attack on the Black Nazarene procession during a hastily called press conference in Malacañang. MALACAÑANG PHOTO

Asked why cell phones should not be carried during the procession, Mr. Aquino’s spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda, said: “Because of the possibility of a detonation through cell phones.”

Mr. Aquino vowed that the government “will do what it has to do, to ensure the safety and security of the public. With the people’s help we will succeed.”

‘Heightened risk’

Replying to questions, Mr. Aquino said the information he got from security officials “leads us to believe there is a heightened risk and, therefore, we are taking the necessary precautions, especially given the nature of the procession for the Black Nazarene, which involves quite a number of people and makes it a very tempting terrorist threat.”

He said the suspected members of a terror group spotted in Metro Manila were local terrorists and that authorities had yet to link them to other extremist groups.

The President said operations were going on to arrest the group and that the authorities had reinforced their operations to thwart any attack.

He said more police officers had been assigned to Monday’s celebration and they would be reinforced by Armed Forces of the Philippines personnel and other units.

“There are other units that have been increased to go after these people who have been spotted in the metropolis,” Mr. Aquino said. He said the security preparations would be “very visible, very obvious and very thorough.”

“If you attend tomorrow (Monday), if you will watch it, you will notice how dramatically different it is,” he said.

Threat is unique

Mr. Aquino noted a “uniqueness” to the threat, saying the procession would have people in “more dense arrangements, which becomes more ideal for terrorists who want to inflict terror.”

The President pointed at a “possibility” that the terror group would resort to bomb attacks but added that the risk was not that high, otherwise “we would have moved to cancel the procession.”

“We are preparing to the maximum of our abilities because of the number of people involved, given the geography and topography of the procession route,” he said.

Asked whether it would be better for devotees to stay home, the President said: “If they can accept that as a practice and as an alternative, that will undoubtedly lessen the risk.”

Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, who was at the news conference, said the security forces were monitoring the movements of six to nine individuals who belong to a terror group based in Mindanao.

At press time, Robredo said security forces could not connect the group to the Abu Sayyaf bandit gang or to other groups.

DEVOTEES WARNED Roman Catholic devotee carry a religious replica icons of the Black Nazarene during a procession in Manila on Saturday, January 7, 2012. President Aquino on Sunday warned devotees to be vigilant during Monday's Black Nazarene celebrations, saying terrorist groups could possibly resort to bombing attacks after authorities spotted local terrorists in the National Capital Region. AFP PHOTO/JAY DIRECTO

He said the individuals could be “director or members” of the terror group.

No bags or backpacks

Robredo also said the terror threat did not specifically say the attack would be carried out during the procession, otherwise the authorities would have asked Church officials to just hold a Mass and not the procession.

He said authorities were raising the alert nevertheless because the group might take advantage of the procession to cause trouble.

Aside from fireworks, cell phones and weapons, Robredo urged devotees not to bring bags or backpacks as they would be subjected to searches.

Robredo said Mr. Aquino came out with the warning to stress to the devotees the need to be “extra careful.”

K-9 units

Philippine National Police Director General Nicanor Bartolome said devotees should avoid bringing children and the elderly to the celebration.

“Those with no important business in these areas are advised to postpone their trips for another day,” Bartolome said.

He said he had ordered the National Capital Region Police Office to field all available mobile and foot patrol units around Quiapo and along the procession route.

The PNP has also requested the AFP and the Philippine Coast Guard to bolster the PNP’s K-9 units “for security screening and threat detection measures.”

The Manila police chief, Senior Supt. Alex Gutierrez, said unruly persons and those found under the influence of drugs and alcohol would be evicted from the procession.

Along with their faith, devotees of the Black Nazarene should bring their umbrellas with them today as light rains are expected in Metro Manila, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Administration (Pagasa) said.

Intermittent light rains from the tail end of a cold front moving over the city could dampen the procession in Quiapo, forecaster Aldczar Aurelio said.

“It will be cloudy tomorrow with light rains. But we don’t expect the rains to last for the whole day like what is happening today,” he explained.

The Nazarene’s original statue arrived in Manila from Mexico in 1607 on board a ship that had caught fire. The statue did not entirely escape the blaze, resulting in its charcoal color, hence the name “Black Nazarene.”

The Black Nazarene also survived fires that engulfed the Quiapo Church in 1791 and 1929, the great earthquakes of 1645 and 1863, and the 1945 bombing of Manila during World War II. With reports from Dona Z. Pazzibugan, Kristine L. Alave, Jaymee T. Gamil and Inquirer Research

First posted 6:20 pm | Sunday, January 8th, 2012

First posted 12:18 am | Monday, January 9th, 2012

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