[PHOTO AT LEFT - FREEDOM DAY MARCH: Thousands of protesters march along Quezon Boulevard toward Liwasang Bonifacio in Manila to dramatize their opposition to Cha-cha or Charter change as the nation celebrated the 108th anniversary of the declaration of independence yesterday. Photo by ERNIE PEÑAREDONDO]

MANILA, June 13, 2006 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo renewed her call for an end to destructive politics and warned Filipinos against "misguided initiatives that threaten to tear our nation apart" as she led nationwide celebrations commemorating the 108th anniversary of the declaration of Philippine independence yesterday.

Addressing a crowd in Rizal Park during the Independence Day celebration, Mrs. Arroyo urged Filipinos to unite and stop political bickering, which she said has prevented the country’s fragile economy from getting back on its feet.

"Our nation is at a crossroads," said Mrs. Arroyo, who has been fending off accusations of electoral fraud since last year. "We have achieved much... and greater things stand before us but we must put an end to politics as usual."

Hundreds of mostly left-wing protesters staged noisy but peaceful street rallies yesterday demanding her ouster over vote-rigging and other allegations.

Police detained 13 left-wing students who tried to disrupt a flag-raising ceremony led by Vice President Noli de Castro at the historic Aguinaldo shrine in Kawit, Cavite.

In her speech, Mrs. Arroyo said those fomenting national disunity were "insulting the memory of those who fought for our independence."

"We owe it to our ancestors to work together to bring about peace and equal opportunity for all," she said, vowing that "we shall work without distraction to build a better life for all Filipinos and we shall continue to seek unity in achieving that paramount goal."

"Democracies can be lively but they must not be divisive," Mrs. Arroyo said. "We owe it to our forefathers to unite in the struggle to bring greater levels of peace, equality and opportunity to all corners of our nation."

Addressing diplomats later at the traditional vin d’ honneur at Malacañang to celebrate Philippine independence, Mrs. Arroyo accused political opponents of dishonoring the memory of Filipino revolutionaries who fought to free the country from Spanish colonizers 108 years ago.

"Many of those who shout in the streets have done nothing for this nation except foment strife and stagnation," Mrs. Arroyo said. "But time will eventually expose them as false prophets whose primary platform is self-interest and national division."

In his response speech, Papal Nuncio Fernando Filoni, the Vatican’s envoy to Manila and dean of the diplomatic corps, praised the Philippine government for its moves toward abolishing capital punishment but said it should do more to defend human rights.

Congress last week approved a bill abolishing the death penalty, which Mrs. Arroyo is expected to sign into law this week. Mrs. Arroyo has backed efforts to abolish capital punishment.

In an Independence Day statement, Archbishop Angel Lagdameo urged Filipinos to remain vigilant against "some compatriots who are enslaving them."

"Our liberty is eroded not so much by foreign invaders, as by inequality and lack of participation, injustice and exploitation, deficient cultural values and mindset, destruction of the ecosystem, and deterioration of peace and order," said Lagdameo, who is the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, the Roman Catholic Church’s local policymaking body.

About 6,000 police and soldiers were deployed across Metro Manila to guard Independence Day celebrations.

Security concerns were raised by a bomb attack by unidentified assailants that damaged a mobile police station Sunday in Quezon City.

Police said more than 5,000 mostly left-wing groups staged marches and protests in three Metro Manila areas to condemn a wave of killings of anti-Arroyo activists, efforts by Mrs. Arroyo’s supporters to revise the 1987 Constitution and her refusal to agree to their calls to step down over vote-rigging and corruption allegations.

In Kawit, Cavite, 13 students were arrested for attempting to disrupt a flag-raising ceremony led by De Castro at the home of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, who declared independence from Spain’s colonial rule on his balcony in 1898.

The students barged into a public square where De Castro was delivering a speech and unfurled red banners reading "Oust Arroyo." Surprised policemen grabbed the banners and took the students to a police station.

Police said the 13 were initially under investigation to determine what charges, if any, would be filed, but were released shortly after.

The militant Kilusang Mayo Uno, the trade union that organized the protest, said those arrested included recent university graduate Teresa Pangilinan, who gained national limelight in April when she heckled Mrs. Arroyo at the graduation ceremony of the Cavite State University.

"This is a fake Independence Day," Pangilinan said. "There are much more killings today, many young people couldn’t go to school and we couldn’t exercise our freedom of speech."

In his speech, De Castro likewise called for national unity to move the country forward.

"We already have a lot of gains since we declared ourselves an independent nation, but what we have not totally freed ourselves from is the fact that there are still Filipinos fighting Filipinos," he said. "We need to remain vigilant in safeguarding our freedom especially from forces who are only after their own interests." De Castro did not elaborate.

Police have been on high alert ahead of the Independence Day activities following a series of bombings in Manila and nearby areas this month.

Two bomb blasts hit small police outposts in Manila on Sunday while a third blast wounded nine people in Lipa City, Batangas.

Philippine National Police chief Director General Arturo Lomibao said Independence Day was generally peaceful in spite of the protest rallies.

A crowd of about 5,000 gathered at Manila’s Liwasang Bonifacio plaza, not far from Rizal Park, to protest the Arroyo administration’s plan to amend the Constitution and adopt a parliamentary system of government as dozens of police officers watched nearby.

"The rally was peaceful, that is why we just let them be," said Superintendent Rolando Miranda. "I instructed my policemen to give the rallyists some room and let them hold their program." — With Pia Lee-Brago, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Arnell Ozaeta, Edu Punay, Evelyn Macairan, AP, AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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