[PHOTO AT LEFT: Army Capt. Peter Edwin Navarro (right), a member of the shadowy military group ‘Kawal,’ is led away after he gave himself up to his superiors at Fort Bonifacio yesterday. - Val Rodriguez]

MANILA, January 30, 2004 (STAR) By Marichu Villanueva And Jaime Laude - President Arroyo assured the nation yesterday that she remains in firm control of the government and dismissed an apparent new plot to oust her as a mere "misadventure" of junior military officers.

"That is why despite all the sound and fury of the political season, even despite the misadventure of some military captains, our nation is safe," Mrs. Arroyo said a day after authorities arrested the supposed coup plotters.

She also denied the claim of the alleged coup plotters that Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita had ordered the military to spy on Mrs. Arroyo’s rivals in the May 10 presidential election.

"We have never exerted partisan influence on the Armed Forces," Mrs. Arroyo said as she assured the public that the military high command continues to monitor the security situation although the plot does not appear to be widespread.

"The (Armed Forces of the Philippines) chief of staff is on top of the situation. As far as the latest AFP incident is concerned, that incident is an isolated (one). No untoward developments have been monitored and a widespread plot is not indicated," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo said the AFP will impose the appropriate disciplinary action against the military officers on top of the charges to be filed against them by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

"We will deal sternly with violations of the chain of command. This administration upholds military and police professionalism," she said.

The six officers, calling themselves Kawal (Soldiers), appeared on television late Wednesday accusing Ermita of ordering surveillance operations against presidential candidates.

Ermita denied the accusation and said the allegations could be part of fresh moves to destabilize the government following the mutiny staged by junior military officers in Makati City on July 27 last year.

AFP chief Gen. Narciso Abaya said the officers involved have been detained for questioning and noted they were former classmates of the junior officers invovled in the July 27 mutiny but there was evident organizational link.

"I think we can consider this a closed case," declared Abaya.

The AFP chief identified the officers in custody as Captains Rembert Baylosis, of the Army’s 7th Infantry Division at Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija; Marcos Serafica, of the Army’s Support Command; Mohammad Yusof Hassan, Army Civil Affairs Group and Philip Esmeralda, of the Army’s Headquarters and Headquarters Support Group.

The alleged leader of the group, Army Capt. Peter Navarro, of the Army’s Special Operations Command, later surrendered and denied leading any coup plot.

Navarro, the son of retired police general Pedro Navarro who has declared support for presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr., said the Kawal group merely protested attempts "to politicize the military."

The sixth member of the group, who appeared on television in an Army uniform and calling himself Gabay (guide), was identified as civilian lawyer Azoden Baltazar.

Baltazar was the one who read the Kawal manifesto calling for the resignation of Ermita whom they accused of ordering the military to spy on Mrs. Arroyo’s rivals.

The clandestine, televised press conference was allegedly organized by Pastor "Boy" Saycon, secretary-general of the civic group Council of Philippine Affairs (COPA).

Saycon denied yesterday any role in instigating the young Army officers and claimed he merely helped the officers air their grievances.

Ermita, for his part, said the group violated the chain of command and could be liable for violating the Articles of War.

"When you urge the people to turn against the government or any duly constituted authority, that is inciting to rebellion and we are now looking at what legal grounds to use against them," Ermita said.

"These people are trying to paint an unstable situation for their own purposes," he added. "The ongoing investigation is to find out the extent of their activities and if there are others involved in the destabilization plot."

While refusing to reveal names, Ermita said the plot appeared to have been carried out by "some politicians" to undermine the Arroyo administration.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the involved junior officers were "misguided elements" who allowed themselves to be used by politicians.

The Signal

Bunye disclosed the initial investigations revealed that the Kawal officers allegedly hatched the plot at a residence somewhere in southern Metro Manila.

Bunye said the meeting took place at the residence of individuals "who have links" to previous destabilization plots but he did not identify the individuals.

"We know that they are not really after Secretary Ermita but this group just would like to stabilize," Bunye said.

Bunye said that the plotters’ televised call to action was supposed to be followed by a series of newspaper advertisements as a signal for simultaneous mass actions.

Abaya, for his part, said a group of civilians was behind the young captains, and Baltazar was part of those pulling Kawal’s strings.

But since the military had no jurisdiction over Baltazar being a civilian, government prosecutors will have to deal with him before civilian courts, Abaya said.

In an interview, Serafica – one of the five Army officers allegedly involved in the plot – said Navarro deceived him and the others into the supposed plot and claimed they thought the press conference was merely a photo session.

Serafica also denied knowing about the existence of Kawal but admitted that on the night of Jan. 26, he left Fort Bonifacio along with Navarro and the others to Glorietta Mall in Makati City.

There they met a man who introduced himself as Captain Gabay, he said.

Serafica claimed Navarro led them to the residence of Saycon in Filinvest Subdivision in Muntinlupa City.

He said they changed into their military uniforms shortly before the news conference was aired Wednesday, where Gabay (Baltazar) read the Kawal manifesto.

Military investigators also uncovered from Esmeralda that Navarro invited 20 of other classmates to his home in Antipolo City for a "class meeting" but later brought them to a party at the Makati Polo Club at Forbes Park.

However, the party, which Saycon also attended, turned into a pro-Poe political gathering.

Esmeralda said they were only used as a "props" and he claimed even his classmates were not aware of the contents of the Kawal manifesto read by Baltazar.

"We were not aware of that manifesto," Esmeralda said, claiming he did not even know Baltazar.

"He (Baltazar) was the only one reading it. We were surprised by the flag. It seems we had been set up. We could not even run since there were armed guards outside," he said in Filipino.

Esmeralda said they ended up blaming each other over the incident on their way home. "I could not sleep that night after that session. It seems we had been used," he added.

Acting Justice Secretary Mercedita Gutierrez said the DOJ will conduct a preliminary investigation of the case based on the recommendation that will be submitted by the police and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).

"We will see what they will recommend to us and it’s up to us to conduct the preliminary investigation," Gutierrez said.

Apart from the ongoing investigation, Gutierrez said the Army officers will also be charged before a court martial.

Former President Fidel Ramos warned that the group is linked to a plot to abort the May 10 elections and install a military junta.

Ramos urged Mrs. Arroyo to go after "the civilian manipulators or masterminds."

Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay, chairman of the House committee on national defense, claimed the civilian backers of the Kawal group, with some belonging to the opposition, are the same ones who financed the Magdalo mutiny. He, however, did not elaborate.

"The military has long been politicized and we must correct that to put an end to these kinds of incidents," Pichay said. "They (Kawal) are not a threat to President Arroyo’s administration or to the economy as they want to protect themselves."

He maintained not all the civilians involved in the July 27 mutiny were identified.

Negros Occidental Rep. Apolinario Lozada said the Kawal and Magdalo groups "are the same dogs of different collars."

Lozada urged the AFP to adopt an iron-fist policy against servicemen involving themselves in military adventurism.

Military rebels launched seven coup attempts against former President Corazon Aquino between 1986 and 1991, backed a civilian revolt which deposed Joseph Estrada in 2001, and staged last year’s failed revolt against Mrs. Arroyo.

Army chief Maj. Gen. Efren Abu downplayed the detained officers’ capability of mounting an armed takeover. The group lacked widespread support, he added. -With Aurea Calica, Paolo Romero, James Mananghaya, Benjie Villa, Non Alquitran, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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