, February 16, 2005
(STAR) By Marichu Villanueva  -  The nation will not be cowed by terrorists, President Arroyo said yesterday as she vowed to wipe out remnants of the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf who claimed responsibility for three bombings that left 12 people dead and over 130 wounded Monday night.

"We will not be cowed by these bandits. Such attacks have strengthened our resolve to fight terrorism and keep our communities and citizens safe and free," Mrs. Arroyo told The STAR after an aerobics session at Malacañang.

The President reiterated her administration’s resolve to annihilate the Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist kidnap-for-ransom group that has evolved into a tenacious terrorist organization despite an all-out war against it.

"We cannot just simply let these guys walk away after creating so much trouble in our country. Our objective is peace and justice because, in the end, it will be conducive to lasting peace," she said.

The President called on the public to unite in its stand against terrorist groups after Monday’s bombings in Makati and the southern cities of General Santos and Davao.

"More than ever, we must not pull back, but move forward to wipe out the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf," the President said in a statement. "The evil of terrorism has only one aim. It is to rule with absolute power and absolute force. The desperation of the enemy cannot be underestimated, even as it lies in the throes of defeat."

Vice President Noli de Castro appealed to Filipinos "to continue our daily activities and not let the terrorists disrupt our normal lives. We will not be cowed by terrorists."

The President also ordered her security advisers and top law enforcement officials to step up preemptive anti-terrorism measures after Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, chairman of the Cabinet Oversight on Anti-Terrorism Council, reported that the Valentine’s Day bombing spree might be in retaliation for ongoing military operations in Sulu.

He said Mrs. Arroyo told police and military officials to widen their intelligence operations to preempt new bomb plots.

She said the government will not stop its offensives despite renewed bomb attacks by the Abu Sayyaf, the Jemaah Islamiyah operatives who trained its members in bomb-making, and followers of former Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) chairman Nur Misuari, who is detained on rebellion charges.

"Our operations in Sulu will be pursued to their logical end, which is to defeat the enclaves of terror, and to open a lasting process of peace and development," Mrs. Arroyo said.

Ermita said the MNLF central executive committee does not sanction the actions of Misuari’s followers, and that MNLF integrees in the police and military are actively pursuing Misuari’s followers.

He admitted that it is very hard to secure every port of entry and every infrastructure in the country, but that the "intelligence community is doing its best to thwart another attack."

The President said the bombings should not be seen as a failure of the government’s anti-terrorism campaign.

"Actually, we have preempted many terrorist attacks, we caught them before they were able to do it," Mrs. Arroyo said. But she acknowledged "those fighting terrorism cannot be successful each time. The terrorist only needs (one chance)."

Mrs. Arroyo added that "after all, terrorism occurs all over the world and the Philippines is, in fact, one of the best at fighting terrorism."

She also reassured law-abiding Muslims, who expressed fears that there would be a renewed crackdown by law enforcers seeking to flush out suspects believed hiding in their midst.

"The government shall focus its operations against terrorist cells and there should be no fear of a witch hunt. This is not a fight against Islam," the President said.

She also clarified that preemptive actions by law enforcers will not disrupt the government peace initiatives with the "mainstream" MNLF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

"This is not a conflict with the MILF or the MNLF, which are closely keeping to the mainstream of the peace process," Mrs. Arroyo said. "We are dealing with renegades from these two groups that are abhorred and rejected by them."

She maintained there is no need for the government to declare a ceasefire at this time in its military offensives in Sulu.

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte flew to General Santos City and met with Mayor Pedro Acharon Jr. to map out a coordinated effort to investigate the bombings in their respective cities.

"We are trying to piece together the information we get and eventually we hope to come up with... who could be behind the bombings," Duterte said.

Mrs. Arroyo reportedly conferred with the two mayors via telephone. Among the concerns Duterte aired was the assurance of assistance for the blast victims from the Office of the President.

A day after the bombings, the President flew by helicopter to Batangas City, where she led the ceremonial groundbreaking for an access road and flyover project in Barangay Bolboc and inaugurated the newly completed cargo berth at the Batangas international port.

The authorities also stepped up security around airports, ports, bus terminals, shopping malls and foreign embassies after Monday’s bombings. Bombs were set off in a bus in Makati City, a bus station in Davao, and outside a shopping mall in General Santos last Monday evening.

Tourism Secretary Joseph Ace Durano said in statement that the Philippines "remains a safe destination for travel," citing that the bombings "while unfortunate, are clearly isolated."

He said the Department of Tourism has always had security arrangements with the Philippine Navy and the Philippine National Police to ensure the safety of both local and foreign tourists.

Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said the government will shoulder the hospitalization expenses of the bombing victims in the three cities using funds from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.

The government will also assist in the burial expenses of those who died in the blasts. It will extend P10,000 in assistance to each victim, based on the policy followed by the National Disaster Coordinating Council.

Soliman added that social workers have started conducting the debriefing process with some of the victims who are still confined in hospital.

‘Horrendous Act’

Lawmakers condemned Monday’s bombings, with Sen. Manuel Villar Jr. saying "hurting and killing innocent civilians is a horrendous act of terrorism" and urged police authorities to exhaust all means to capture those behind the blasts.

He told the public to expect stricter security measures in places where people converge, such as malls and transport stations.

Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr. called on the public to be vigilant and report to the proper authorities any information that could lead to the arrest of the bombers.

Sen. Ramon Magsaysay called on Mrs. Arroyo to declare a state of emergency in the affected areas to enable her to exercise police powers "to hinder the full execution of the plan of a number of groups who have joined forces... to further injure our nation."

He said the volatile situation makes it necessary for the President to exercise the "most essential and least illimitable of powers" as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Senators Luisa Ejercito and her son Jinggoy Estrada, noting the "volatile" situation in the country, asked law enforcers to be "extra cautious" in arresting people and presenting them as suspects "for the sake of media blitz."

They warned that if law enforcers put the wrong people behind bars, "this could create a perception that our government agencies are conspiring to persecute our Muslim brothers."

Muslim and Christian congressmen called for draconian measures, including the passage of the anti-terrorism bill, to prevent the future loss of life and bring terrorists to justice. They also called for an immediate ceasefire in Sulu to reduce tensions in the country.

Deputy Speaker for Mindanao Gerry Salapuddin, a former MNLF commander, said the attacks were an affront to Islam and that the bombers have "shown their true colors as senseless terrorists."

Anak Mindanao party-list Rep. Mujiv Hataman said the bombers should target only combatants and "fight in the open."

Hataman said the government should not give terrorists a reason to exploit the fighting in Sulu and should instead stop abuses by soldiers and improve the economy of Mindanao.

Lanao del Sur Rep. Benasing Macarambon meanwhile raised the possibility of a "third force" out to derail peace talks between the government and the MILF.

Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez called on Congress to immediately pass the anti-terrorism bill and support a "three-tiered defense against terrorism" that involves enhancing intelligence, hardening targets and preparing for disaster management.

He said the Philippines is the only country in the region without an anti-terrorism law, which makes it a "soft target," surrounded by countries with very strong anti-terrorism measures in place.

South Cotabato Rep. Darlene Antonino-Custodio said General Santos and Davao cities became targets because of the weak presence of government troops in these cities.

She said nearly a hundred troops were pulled out of General Santos City alone to beef up government forces in Sulu.

Communist rebels and militant groups alike also condemned the bombings. — With Pia Lee-Brago, Sheila Crisostomo, Arnell Ozaeta, Jess Diaz, Jose Rodel Clapano, Paolo Romero, Mayen

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved