MANILA, September 30, 2003  (STAR) By Rainier Allan Ronda and Sammy Santos  - Transportation and Communications Secretary Leandro Mendoza refuted yesterday reports that security at the country’s airports are "among the weakest in Asia" and assured the people that Philippine airports are secure.

At the same time, Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr. directed security and transportation officials to redouble security measures in air and seaports, particularly in the Zamboanga peninsula and Sulu archipelago.

Guingona issued the directive in the absence of President Arroyo who was in Paris, France yesterday on the last leg of a three-nation official trip.

Mendoza stressed that local airports just passed a security audit by the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) last Aug. 20 and 21.

He said the US FAA declared in its audit report that the Air Transporation Office (ATO) continues to meet international aviation security standards.

Because of the positive US FAA finding, the Philippines retained its Category 1 status with the agency, regarded as the global authority on airport security.

Just last Sept. 18, Mendoza said that US FAA Flight Standards Service director James Ballough informed ATO director Adelberto Yap that the ATO will retain its Category 1 status.

"I am pleased now to advise you that as a result of the extensive work completed by your government and the positive findings resulting from our August visit, the FAA has determined that the ATO continues to meet the requirements in regards to safety oversight under international standards of the Chicago convention," Ballough told Yap in his letter.

"As such, the International Aviation Safety Assessment Category of the Philippines shall remain Category 1. No other public announcement or press release will be made by the FAA," Ballough said.

Mendoza stressed that strict and intensified security measures continued to be implemented in Philippine airports by the ATO since the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center terror attacks in New York City.

Mendoza said that at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) alone, a series of strict security measures against terrorism has been implemented since last year.

Among the measures implemented by the ATO are the 100-percent passenger and hold baggage checking, installation of electronic detection gadgets, doubling of its police and security force that was also made to undergo rigorous anti-terrorist training, and extension of perimeter security check to at least 200 meters from the airport complex.

Mendoza said that the other major airports of the country, such as the Mactan-Cebu International Airport, the Davao International Airport, the Laoag International Airport, and the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport, are also implementing strict security measures.

Mendoza issued the statements in reaction to an Agence France Press news report claiming that three "security experts" cited the Philippines, along with Indonesia and Thailand, as one of the "weak links" in the Asian region’s effort to combat terrorism.

Meanwhile, Guingona directed redoubled security efforts after the news report.

Guingona said he directed ATO assistant secretary Nilo Jatico to coordinate with the DOTC as well as the Philippine National Police PNP in upgrading airport security in the country

Guingona ordered the upgrade in the security of airports and seaports after the Agence France Presse said airports in Indonesia and the Philippines, particularly outside the capital cities, have lax security which terrorists could use to hijack planes.

Guingona also cited the recent decision of the Australian government which re-issued a travel warning to its nationals not to travel to the Zamboanga peninsula and Sulu Archipelago due to threats of terror attacks.

"We share the concern for the safety, not only of Australians but all other foreigners who visit our country," Guingona said. "We certainly always want their stay here to be pleasant and free."

"I am sure our police and military are doing their outmost to keep our public places secure for all, Filipinos and foreigners alike," he added.

Guingona also revealed government was doing its outmost to upgrade security facilities in the country’s airports.

"We are aware that there are continuing programs to upgrade not only the security facilities and the capability of personnel, but the overall conditions such as safety and navigational facilities," he said.

The AFP reported that a Singapore-based expert, Rohan Gunaratna, has noted that the Philippines and Indonesia had some of the weakest aviation security measures in the Asia-Pacific while Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong had the best.

Thailand was mentioned as one area of concern, with planes flying out of Bangkok’s international Don Muang airport relatively easy targets for surface-to-air missiles. Analysts said security at Asia’s airports has been beefed up in the two years since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States but there are still many weak links that leave the region vulnerable to terrorist strikes in the air.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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