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Arroyo Vows to Combat Guerrillas

The World | THE FIGHT AGAINST TERROR

Philippines: President orders crackdown in the wake of deadly bombings. Two are arrested in the attacks.

April 23, 2002|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONG KONG — One day after a series of bombings left 14 people dead and about 60 others injured in the southern Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo vowed Monday to fight terrorism and ordered a crackdown on those suspected of trying to destabilize the region.

"This is a crime against the Filipino people," she said of the bombings. "This evil will not go unpunished."

The president's comments came in a statement issued hours after she made a brief and nervous visit to the scene of Sunday's mayhem in the southern port city of General Santos. Shortly before Arroyo's arrival, a bomb exploded in a boat offshore, but no injuries were reported.

In a major police sweep, two suspects have been detained in connection with Sunday's bombings, regional police commander Bartolome Baluyot said. Both are said to be members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest separatist group fighting to create an independent Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines.

The rebel group's vice chairman for military affairs, Murad Ibrahim, denied any involvement in the bombings and condemned attacks against civilians as anti-Islamic.

A spokesman claiming to represent the Abu Sayyaf extremist group told a Mindanao radio station that members of his organization had carried out the attack and vowed that more bombings would follow. The man said the bombings were in retaliation for the government-led offensive against the group on the southern island of Basilan.

"The government is looking down on us and has been saying that Abu Sayyaf is now a spent force, and they are wrong," the spokesman said. "Until we get what we want, we will not stop."

The Abu Sayyaf also claims to be fighting for an independent Muslim homeland, but the group has in recent years busied itself more with kidnapping for ransom. It currently holds hostage a Filipina nurse named Deborah Yap and an American missionary couple, Martin and Gracia Burnham of Kansas.

U.S. intelligence sources believe that the Abu Sayyaf is linked with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network. The Bush administration dispatched more than 600 U.S. troops this year to help train, advise and support the Philippine military in operations to crush the guerrilla group. With the help of sophisticated American technology, Philippine units on Basilan have sharply increased pressure on the group but so far have been unable to wipe it out or free the hostages.

An additional 340 American troops began arriving on Basilan on Friday to help repair roads, improve port facilities and carry out other construction projects.

Arroyo reportedly considered declaring a state of emergency Monday in the wake of the bombings the day before, but she pulled back because of possible political repercussions. Some observers have argued that such a move would violate the constitution, while Muslim groups expressed concern that she might use sweeping powers of arrest and seizure to launch indiscriminate operations.

There also were fears that such a move might scare off badly needed foreign investment.

"It's things like this that make it difficult to win investors back," said Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Miguel Varela.

*

Times special correspondent Al Jacinto in Zamboanga, the Philippines, contributed to this report.

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