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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Explosives Seized in Philippine Bust

January 18, 2002|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Philippine police arrested three men suspected of links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network and seized a ton of explosives Thursday, acting on a tip from authorities in Singapore who recently broke up a terror ring there.

The arrests in the southern Philippine city of General Santos came as U.S. troops began setting up camp less than 200 miles away to assist the Philippine military in combating an Islamic separatist band of kidnappers that has been holding two American hostages.

The arrests and the discovery of a weapons cache indicate that a terrorist network connected with Al Qaeda has been operating secretly for some time in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

About 650 U.S. troops are moving into the southern Philippines to train and assist government soldiers in maneuvers aimed at destroying Abu Sayyaf guerrillas operating on Basilan island. Some allege that the Abu Sayyaf also has links to Al Qaeda.

The Philippine government has billed the joint military operation as an "exercise" but acknowledges that it could last up to a year and that U.S. military personnel could take part in combat despite a constitutional ban on foreign troops engaging in military activity.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo insisted this week that the role of U.S. troops in the war games is legal and that their assistance could help eliminate the Abu Sayyaf.

"We might finally crush the Abu Sayyaf [during the exercises]," she told reporters. "I am willing to weather the criticism because we'll succeed in the end."

Abu Sayyaf has held U.S. missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham hostage since May. The group is also holding Philippine nurse Deborah Yap.

There was no indication whether the three suspects arrested Thursday on the island of Mindanao have any links to the Abu Sayyaf or to other Islamic separatist groups that have long fought the government in the southern Philippines.

Authorities didn't identify the three arrested men or provide information about them, although they are all apparently Filipinos.

Philippine police said they had dug up a variety of weapons, including 17 M-16s, bomb-making materials and detonators, from the yard of a house that the suspects were using.

"The arrests were the result of information from Singaporean authorities about the possible presence in the Philippines of personalities connected with Al Qaeda," national police spokesman Gen. Cresencio Maralit told Reuters.

The discovery in Southeast Asia of a well-developed Al Qaeda network called Jemaah Islamiah has come as a shock to many, especially in the authoritarian city-state of Singapore.

Thirteen people allegedly connected to the group have been arrested in Singapore since early December and ordered held without trial for at least two years under the island nation's Internal Security Act. Eight of the 13 received training in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, authorities say.

Singaporean authorities say the plotters had made plans to attack a variety of U.S. targets.

Fifteen other people have been arrested since December in Malaysia in the breakup of a related terrorist network.

Authorities in both countries allege that the groups were led by two Indonesian clerics, Abu Bakar Bashir and Hambali, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. Indonesian police have questioned Bashir about the charges but have not taken action against him. Hambali's whereabouts is unknown.

Acting on the information from Singapore, the Philippine police dug up the weapons cache, which included 50 cartons of TNT.

Markings on cylinders containing the TNT indicated that they were made in the Philippines. Police also found 300 detonators.

Authorities said there were enough explosives to destroy a block of houses.

"Investigators are still determining the suspects' possible links to the dreaded Al Qaeda terrorist group," the Philippine police said in a statement.

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