[PHOTO AT LEFT -  WALKING IN THE RAIN: A Presidential Security Group member shields President Arroyo from the rain as she walks toward Malacañang’s Ceremonial Hall from the Executive Building for yesterday’s oath-taking of elected Laguna officials. -Photo by Revoli Cortez ]

MANILA,  July 16, 2004 (STAR) President Arroyo flies to Cebu today to formally launch the "Malacañang of the South" which she is setting up at the Bureau of Customs building in Cebu City’s port area.

The President had promised to set up another Malacañang in Cebu, believing the province gave her the winning votes in the elections.

This would be the first public engagement of the President outside Malacañang since the hostage crisis involving Filipino driver Angelo de la Cruz broke out last week in war-torn Iraq.

While also in Cebu, the deeply religious Mrs. Arroyo will take spiritual refuge in the Our Lady of Mount Carmelite convent and seek divine intervention in the hostage drama.

The President has been asking the Filipino nation to pray for the safe release of De la Cruz, a truck driver facing the threat of beheading by Iraqi militants if the Philippine government does not pull out its troops in Iraq.

The Arroyo administration has softened its approach on the insurgents and has started withdrawing personnel from the small Philippine humanitarian contingent helping in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq.

The President has deliberately made herself scarce since the hostage crisis broke out. She imposed a "news blackout" on official pronouncements regarding efforts by the government to save De la Cruz.

All her official activities at the Palace have been limited to photo opportunities.

The last time Palace reporters saw Mrs. Arroyo in a media coverage at the Palace was last Monday when she addressed the first anniversary of the Philippine National Police special task force against illegal drugs.

Before flying to Cebu, the President will lead installation ceremonies of Archbishop Ramon Arguelles as the fifth bishop of the Archdiocese of Lipa at the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Sebastian in Lipa City in Batangas.

As of press time yesterday, the Palace Press Office issued no cancellation notice of the scheduled official activities of the President for today.

The President said earlier she chose to put up her "Malacañang of the South" office at the Customs building, describing it as structurally similar to the high-ceilinged halls of the Palace.

As per Palace directives issued last July 5, Customs officials led by Commissioner Antonio Bernardo have been scouting for another building to house the entire Cebu Customs district and its personnel.

The Customs building is situated in Cebu City near the entrance of the newly completed P7-billion South Coastal highway that links the provincial capital to Talisay City.

This would be the President’s first visit to Cebu after she took her oath of office last June 30 at the Cebu capitol grounds.

The President is also expected to induct today into office government officials whom she would appoint to man her "Malacañang of the South," led by presidential assistant for Central Visayas Felix Guanzon.

Mrs. Arroyo would spend the night in Cebu and fly the following morning to Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental where should would, among other activities, inaugurate the new Philippine Ports Authority Terminal project.

While in Dumaguete City, the President will have a luncheon meeting with local government officials and will attend Mass at the Dumaguete Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria. — Marichu Villanueva

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved