MALACANANG, January 3, 2004
(STAR) President Arroyo expressed her grief and condolences yesterday to the families and relatives of the 19 people killed in the fire that gutted a public market in Lucena City last Wednesday.

In an official statement released by the Palace, Mrs. Arroyo lamented that such a tragic accident happened on the eve of the New Year when it could have been avoided if only appropriate safety and precautionary measures were instituted.

The fire started in a stall selling firecrackers and spread through the entire public market.

"I have the deepest sympathy for the families of the Lucena fire victims, but such tragedies could have been prevented if precautionary measures were observed," Mrs. Arroyo pointed out.

The President failed to say, however, if she would visit the fire victims in Lucena or if she has already sent relief assistance to them.

She disclosed though that she has instructed Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Jose Lina Jr., who has direct supervision of the Bureau of Fire Protection, to check on the implementation of fire safety measures in public places in coordination with concerned local government units (LGUs).

"I would like the DILG, through the Bureau of Fire Protection to work with the LGUs in conducting thorough inspections of all vulnerable commercial or residential areas, especially in urban areas, and in enforcing compliance with fire safety measures under the law," the President said.

"Let us start now and let us not relent until we can get rid of these fire traps and hazards that pose a threat to public safety," the President exhorted. — Marichu Villanueva

It will be GMA-Kabayan vs FPJ-Loren — Palace By Marichu Villanueva The Philippine Star 01/03/2004

Malacañang predicted yesterday that the May 10 elections will be a contest between the administration ticket of President Arroyo and Sen. Noli de Castro and the tandem of movie actor Fernando Poe Jr. and Sen. Loren Legarda.

"From all the different camps vying for the presidency, the two teams that will be fighting it out in the coming elections are (that) of President Arroyo and Sen. Noli de Castro and the team of FPJ and Loren," said presidential campaign spokesman Michael Defensor.

Journalists to whom Defensor made the fearless forecast interpreted the remark as a "put down" of the Aksyon Demokratiko ticket of former education secretary Raul Roco, who has consistently finished ahead of the President in opinion surveys.

Defensor’s remark was also an apparent dismissal of the candidacy of Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who has yet to name his running mate.

"We’re very confident about the team of the President and Senator De Castro. We do not only have the winnability but also the performance and the track record for doing service," said Defensor, also chairman of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC).

"We are not really threatened by the candidacy of anyone," he said.

He also noted that the Arroyo-De Castro tandem enjoys the operational advantage of being supported by a united coalition while there appears to be a "three-way split" in the opposition Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP).

Defensor particularly cited the internal disputes within the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP), which was divided over who between Poe and Lacson should get the official party nomination.

Defensor claimed that even Poe’s bosom buddy, jailed former President Joseph Estrada, is "not happy with the situation" but did not elaborate.

"Definitely, the opposition is divided with the split-up of Lacson (and LDP chairman, Sen. Edgardo Angara)," he said. "I think the efforts of the opposition will not be unified with the split, which is not only two-way but three-way. I understand even former President Estrada was not happy with the situation."

Defensor said this division in the opposition ranks has allowed the ruling Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD) party to recruit national and local leaders who have been "eased out" by formation of the Poe-Legarda tandem.

"The President, in a four-way fight, is tied with FPJ in Class E and I feel that many of those in the ABCD (socio-economic classes) will vote for President Arroyo just to prevent an FPJ presidency," he said.

Despite claims of party unity, however, Defensor admitted that Lakas-CMD’s senatorial ticket also remains incomplete because of candidates who backed out to join the KNP.

Among these candidates, he said, are former senator Ernesto Herrera, former youth commission chairwoman Amina Rasul-Bernardo and former interior secretary Alfredo Lim.

Those who remain in the senatorial slate are re-electionist Senators Robert Barbers and Robert Jaworski, former trade and industry secretary Manuel Roxas II, Agrarian Reform Secretary Roberto Pagdanganan, former senator Heherson Alvarez, Videogram Regulatory Board chairman Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr. and lawyer Pia Cayetano-Sebastian, daughter of the late former senator Renato Cayetano.

Defensor said it is still uncertain if Pampanga Gov. Lito Lapid will push through with his plans to run for a senatorial seat.

In the case of Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon and Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) Chairman Bayani Fernando, they have both expressed interest to stay in the executive branch, Defensor said.

He said President Legislative Liaison Office head Secretary Gabriel Claudio has been designated to finalize the Lakas-CMD senatorial slate.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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