MANILA, September 10, 2003 (STAR) Security forces have been placed on high alert to thwart attacks to mark this week’s second anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Lt. Col. Daniel Lucero said yesterday.

Lucero said military intelligence units are on alert for any retaliatory attacks from local Muslim radicals following the recent arrest in Thailand of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) operations chief Hambali.

"We are on alert for possible retaliation (because) of the capture of Hambali. So we heightened our alert level to blue. It’s actually aimed at preparing for any terroristic activity," Lucero said.

He clarified that the raising of the alert from white to blue was not intended to fan rumors of a possible coup, rather to be on guard against terrorist acts.

Hambali was tagged as the second highest ranking officer of the JI to be captured. The JI is said to be the Southeast Asian arm of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network that has been blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks as well the bombings in Bali that killed more than 200 people last October.

The Philippines was among the first countries to back the US-led war on terror, and there have been concerns the country has become a target for terrorist groups in Southeast Asia.

The attacks on the US World Trade Center two years ago were, in fact, a realization of a terrorist plot code-named "Oplan Bojinka," hatched in the country in the early 1990s.

Lucero said at least 2,000 troops were on the heels of Hambali associate Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, an Indonesian member of the JI who escaped from his detention cell at the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters at Camp Crame last July 14.

Both men had planned a spate of bombings in Manila in December 2000 that killed 22 people and wounded over a hundred others, according to police.

Elite anti-terror police units, meanwhile, were placed around Metro Manila.

As this developed, police chiefs of the Southeast Asian region yesterday said they have not monitored any specific threat linked to the anniversaries of the Sept. 11 attacks and the Bali bombings but that their anti-terrorist forces are on alert.

"We have been very concerned about certain anniversaries, so we just tell our people, both the community and the police, to be more vigilant to prevent an attack," Singapore police commissioner Khoo Boon Hui said. "There is no specific information, but we’re always careful."

PNP chief Director General Hermogenes Ebdane Jr. said police forces across the region are prepared for any contingency and are closely sharing information to detect any threat quickly.

Such information exchanges have prevented planned bombings by the JI in the Philippines and Singapore in recent years and led to the arrest of suspected members of the Muslim extremist group, Ebdane said.

Ebdane spoke to reporters on the sideline of a conference of top police officials of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Aseanapol) which is also being attended by officials from Australia, New Zealand and Interpol.

Southeast Asian governments, including the Philippines, have been trying to set up a regional security shield through better exchanges of intelligence information, tighter border guarding and joint training to shake off an image that their region is a terrorist hotbed, which has hurt tourism and trade.

Interior and Local Government Secretary Jose Lina Jr. said in a speech to the conference that nations should expand cooperation and explore innovative ways to thwart attacks because the periodic bombings indicate a long-term threat.

"We should be prepared for a protracted war in the region," Lina said.

In the country alone, Lina said at least 49 people have been killed while 200 others were injured in at least three bombings in Mindanao and Metro Manila. – Christina Mendez, Jaime Laude, AFP, AP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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