MANILA, Philippines – President Benigno Aquino III warned on Sunday of a possible terrorist attack, including bombings, during an annual Roman Catholic procession in Manila that draws millions of devotees.
Aquino, joined by all his top defense and security officials, told a hurriedly called news conference that several terrorists planning to disrupt Monday's religious procession have been sighted in the capital. Police are attempting to arrest the suspects and disrupt any planned attack, he said.
"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 and engage in community activities," Aquino said in the nationally televised briefing.
While there was a "heightened risk," Aquino said the possibility of a terrorist assault was not high enough for the government to make an unprecedented decision to cancel the daylong procession.
He said security will be tight during the procession of a centuries-old image of Jesus Christ known as the Black Nazarene. He asked devotees not to bring cellphones or weapons. All firecrackers, which are traditionally lit during the event, will be banned and violators will be arrested, he said.
The huge number of barefoot devotees who gather during the procession through downtown Manila's narrow streets "makes it a very tempting terrorist threat," Aquino said.
He said authorities have been monitoring possible terrorist threats since August but declined to provide other details. The threat monitored by the government was not related to a U.S. government travel advisory last week which warned Americans of terror threats in the Philippines, he said.
Asked if the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group, which is based in the country's south, was behind the threat, Aquino replied that the possibility has not been confirmed. He said the terrorists monitored in the capital were Filipinos.
Abu Sayyaf militants, who are notorious for bombings, kidnappings and beheadings, have staged deadly bomb attacks in metropolitan Manila in the past. In 2004, they detonated a bomb that set off an inferno and killed 116 people aboard a ferry in Manila Bay in the country's worst terrorist attack.
U.S.-backed Philippine offensives have considerably weakened the Abu Sayyaf, which is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations, but the group remains a key national security threat.
The Abu Sayyaf has harbored Indonesian militants from the Southeast Asian militant network Jemaah Islamiyah in their jungle strongholds on southern Jolo islands. The Jemaah Islamiyah was blamed for the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people, mostly Australians and other foreign tourists, in Southeast Asia's worst terrorist attack.