MANILA, January 3, 2003 (STAR)  By Aurea Calica and Marvin Sy  - The Australian Embassy in Manila reopened yesterday in Makati City, 36 days after it was closed due to what it said was a "specific threat" of a terrorist attack.

Australian Ambassador Ruth Pearce called on Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople to announce the resumption of the embassy’s full operations.

Embassy officials said they would relocate to a more secure place in the first quarter of the year.

Canadian Ambassador Robert Collette and Ambassador Johannes Kok of the European Commission, the local representative office of the European Union, also joined the meeting, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said.

Canada and the EU, which both shut down their representative offices like Australia, reopened their missions earlier this week also in the same sites. The Canadian Embassy reopened last Dec. 30 while the EU, which is in the same building as the Australian mission, opened on Dec. 20.

"This is a vindication of the Philippine government’s position that the country is safe for foreign nationals despite its taking a leading role in the global fight against international terrorism," Ople said in a statement.

The closure of the missions had angered the Philippine government, which said that the alleged threats were exaggerated and that the shutdowns harmed the country’s image.

Manila subsequently fired Manila police intelligence chief Superintendent George Gaddi, who allegedly leaked unverified intelligence information about the terrorist threats on the Australian and Canadian embassies.

Ople disclosed that all three ambassadors expressed satisfaction with the upgraded security arrangements provided by the Philippine government.

"We still believe that the threat was very specific and we had no other choice but to close, but we’ve been very, very appreciative of all the support that’s been offered to us in dealing with the situation," Pearce said.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer also said earlier that Canberra was satisfied that the specific and credible threat against the embassy has been discontinued.

"We are grateful for the assistance provided by the Philippine government during the closure, and in particular for the support from the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. We also appreciate the additional security support, which has been deployed to improve security at the chancery building," Downer said.

But the relocation plan will push through although the Australian officials refused to divulge details.

For his part, Collette said that the threats have passed and they are now comfortable with the current security arrangements.

"We are very, very satisfied with the security measures that have been taken," he said.

Return to normal

Southern Police District Director Chief Superintendent Jose Gutierrez Sr., who heads Task Force Diplomat Security, attributed the normalization of the embassies’ operations to the security measures implemented by the Task Force.

None of the perceived threats previously reported by embassy officials, he said, have been validated and the local authorities assured that there is no reason to be apprehensive.

Members of the Philippine National Police-Public Safety and Protection Office, the Philippine Marines and the Special Action Force of the Philippine Army are still on duty daily along with the private security hired by the embassies.

The Task Force said, however, that the atmosphere would return to normal in a very short time.

At the Australian embassy yesterday, processing of visas was still unavailable as computers and other equipment were still being restored, although all the other offices within the embassy have opened. Visa applicants were asked to return on Jan. 6.

Renewed ties

Ople thanked the embassies for the resumption of their operations and for reviewing and revising their respective travel advisories to their nationals visiting the Philippines.

"As reworded, the advisories are more favorable to the Philippines as a tourist and investment destination," he said.

"All’s well that ends well," he added, saying that he is confident that Philippine relations with Canada, Australia and the EU will continue to strengthen after all the problems encountered during the closure.

The three ambassadors pledged to continue to work for the success of their respective official development assistance (ODA) programs for the Philippines.

Australia’s ODA projects include the P19.6 million grant which was provided by the Australian government to 17 income generating projects initiated by non-government organizations (NGOs) and people’s organizations in Aklan and Capiz.

Ople said "prospects have improved for a bilateral memorandum of understanding between the Philippines and Australia for intelligence-sharing and closer coordination in the global fight against terrorism, especially in the Southeast Asian region."

Some senior officials in Manila had urged the government to review the accord following the embassy closures.

This month, the Canadian embassy is also set to launch a training program in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which Ople cited as an important strategic contribution to programs for the people of Mindanao.

Canada has committed to provide C$25 million annually to the Philippines, 60 percent of which will be devoted to Mindanao’s development.

Meanwhile, the EU extended seven million euro for the forestry management project in Palawan. The project aims to assist the province of Palawan in protecting its forests, particularly all critical watersheds and areas of scientific, cultural or scenic interests. — With AFP

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