Officials allege plot to kill Philippine leader

February 14, 2008 9:04:08 AM PST
Militants linked to al-Qaida plotted to assassinate the Philippine president and bomb foreign embassies, officials said Thursday.

Military chief of staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon said the assassination plot allegedly was hatched by the extremist Abu Sayyaf group and its Indonesia-based ally, Jemaah Islamiyah.

Opposition groups dismissed the allegation as government scare tactics to prevent people from joining protests Friday to demand President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's resignation.

Brig. Gen. Romeo Prestoza, head of the Presidential Security Group, said police uncovered the plot last week. "It's not only the president who is the target, but also other people ... and embassies," he said without offering specifics.

The alleged plot was also to involve a sniper shooting the president, Esperon said.

A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said officials there were aware of media reports that foreign embassies had been targeted but would not comment further. She spoke on condition of anonymity in line with policy.

The officials did not specify when the attacks were expected to occur. But Prestoza said Arroyo's attendance at an alumni homecoming of the Philippine Military Academy on Saturday in northern Baguio city has been canceled and the rest of her schedule was "under assessment."

Earlier, the military had announced that security forces would go on high alert over an alleged communist rebel plan to infiltrate the protests.

"Obviously this is a very desperate tactic to create an atmosphere of terror and scare people to prevent them from joining the protest actions tomorrow," said Renato Reyes, secretary general of left-wing Bayan, one of the protest organizers.

Esperon denied the government revealed the alleged plot to discourage participation in the planned protest.

"We are simply acting as security forces and so we have deemed it necessary that we come out in the open about our assessment of the situation," Esperon said.

A police counterterrorism officer said a captured member of the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf told investigators late last year that his comrades, working with Jemaah Islamiyah and Manila-based Filipino Islamic converts, plotted a bomb attack in Baguio against unspecified targets that was believed to be scheduled for December.

Philippine security officials speculated that the targets could include Arroyo, who did not spend Christmas Eve with her family in the mountain resort city as she had traditionally done, or U.S. diplomats, who have a consulate there, said the officer. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

The police officer, however, said investigators failed to find other evidence that would back up the Abu Sayyaf member's claim. No bomb attack occurred in Baguio in December.

The Abu Sayyaf and its allies have been blamed for numerous kidnappings, beheadings and bombings, including a blast that triggered a fire that killed 116 people on a ferry in Manila Bay in February 2004.

The protest rally against Arroyo is set for Friday in Manila's financial district, Makati. Protesters are demanding the resignation of Arroyo and other officials over corruption allegations.

Political tensions intensified last week when former government consultant Rodolfo Lozada Jr. linked an ex-elections chief and Arroyo's husband to an allegedly overpriced $330 million broadband contract, which the president has since canceled.

Both men have denied the allegations, and Arroyo has not spoken directly about her husband's alleged involvement.

Arroyo, a staunch U.S. ally plagued by long-running Islamic and communist insurgencies, has fended off three impeachment bids and four coup plots since taking over in the country's second "people power" revolt in 2001. She has two years left in her term.