DECEMBER 2, 2006 (STAR) President Arroyo took over as acting defense secretary yesterday and ordered officials to carry on with the reforms initiated by resigned defense chief Avelino Cruz Jr.

After conferring the Order of Lakandula with the rank of Grand Officer on the late Philippine STAR publisher and chairman Max V. Soliven at the St. Ignatius Cathedral at Camp Aguinaldo at around 9 a.m., Mrs. Arroyo proceeded to the Department of National Defense office where she held a closed-door meeting with members of the DND transition council, headed by Defense Undersecretary Ernesto Carolina.

The council was formed following the resignation of seven undersecretaries and assistant secretaries.

The other members of the transition team are: Undersecretary for Policy Antonio Santos, presidential assistant for the military Capability Upgrade Program Ariston delos Reyes, Assistant Secretary for Plans and Programs Emmanuel Feliciano, Assistant Secretary for Administration Ruben Ciron, and Col. Emmanuel Bautista, senior military assistant to the defense secretary.

During the meeting the President reiterated that she only intends to serve as defense secretary for 60 days.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said the President ordered defense officials to implement the Philippine Defense Reform (PDR) program and at the same time enhance the efficiency of combat units to accomplish the mission of the Armed Forces.

"The President would push faster the counterinsurgency program as well as the acquisition of equipment to enhance the upgrade the Armed Forces of the Philippines," he said.

After meeting with the defense transition team, Arroyo presided over the meeting of the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), which is chaired by the secretary of national defense.

The President was briefed on the casualties and damage caused by typhoon "Reming" and the government’s response to help the victims in Bicol and Southern Tagalog where over 200 people were killed and thousands were evacuated. The storm also cut off power supply in Bicol.

Mrs. Arroyo likened Reming to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and Louissiana in the United States in 2005.

Ermita also announced yesterday the appointment of Defense Undersecretary Ric Blancaflor from the Anti-Terrorism Task Force to the defense department.

"He is the first appointment and since Undersecretary Blancaflor had been from the department also, he is not really a stranger, he will not be new in the department so he will be working with the other undersecretaries," he said.

Carolina said the President told the transition council to carry on with reforms in the military that were initiated by Cruz, which were the result of a two-year strategic planning process.

He said the President would be running the department in the next two months until she appoints a new defense secretary.

Secretary Cruz tendered his irrevocable resignation a few weeks ago. He told The STAR that there were three Cabinet members who wanted him out of Malacañang due to his opposition to the people’s initiative to amend the Constitution.

Four undersecretaries and two assistant secretaries followed Cruz’s lead and tendered their irrevocable resignations effective November 30.

They were Undersecretaries Cecilio Lorenzo, Jose Santos, Rodel Cruz and Rafael Antonio Santos, and assistant secretaries Aida Araceli Roxas-River and Catherine Jennifer Gonzales.

Cruz, in his two-year stint as defense secretary, set in motion crucial military reforms, most of which were among the recommendations of a special commission formed after the July 27, 2003 Oakwood mutiny.

He urged the President to appoint a civilian to continue the reforms in the military

Cruz, however, emphasized that the selection of the defense chief is a presidential prerogative and he had not recommended anyone as his replacement.

Public Works Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane Jr., is one of the officials being considered to replace Cruz. National Irrigation Administration (NIA) Administrator Arturo Lomibao is also a contender.

Both Ebdane and Lomibao were former chiefs of the Philippine National Police. - Jaime Laude, James Mananghaya, Paolo Romero

Mike A in hospital; GMA, children by his bedside By Paolo Romero The Philippine Star 12/02/2006

Triggering more speculations about the health of the First Couple, President Arroyo accompanied First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo to St. Luke’s Medical Center (SLMC) where he underwent more medical tests, Palace officials said yesterday.

Mr. Arroyo quietly checked in at around noon, but media got wind of it after the President’s convoy was spotted proceeding to the SLMC, where the First Couple had two-day executive checkups last week, immediately after Mrs. Arroyo presided over the meeting of the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) at the Department of National Defense (DND) building in Camp Aguinaldo.

"This is nothing. This is just a routine follow-up (medical checkup)," Mr. Arroyo told The STAR over the telephone.

Mr. Arroyo’s chief of staff has vehemently denied reports that the First Gentleman was sick and had to be rushed to the hospital.

Undersecretary Juris Soliman said in a press statement that Mr. Arroyo was in the hospital to finish his executive check-up and was not under treatment for any ailment.

Soliman said the First Gentleman’s executive checkup was supposed to have finished Monday, but Mr. Arroyo’s tight schedule did not permit this.

According to Soliman, Mr. Arroyo failed to attend the dry run for the spouses’ program for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Cebu because flights were canceled due to typhoon "Reming."

Soliman said reports that the First Gentleman was ailing are clearly a "disinformation maneuver intended to put the country in a bad light before the international community in line with the summit."

Soliman also asked the people behind these erroneous reports on Mr. Arroyo’s ill health "not to sacrifice the country just to satisfy their nefarious intentions."

The President arrived about five minutes after her husband was confined. She met with NDCC and Cabinet officials to discuss rehabilitation efforts in the aftermath of typhoon Reming.

To dispel rumors about the President’s health, Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs Gabriel Claudio, who was with the First Couple at the SLMC, sent text messages to reporters saying: "The President is just accompanying the First Gentleman, who is undergoing routine medical procedures as a follow-up to his own checkup last week."

"President Arroyo’s presence before the Australia-New Zealand Chamber of Commerce tonight should dispel any speculations about her health," he said, referring to her attendance at the 25th anniversary of the business chamber at the Dusit Hotel Nikko in Makati City last night.

Presidential Chief of Staff Michael Defensor laughed off rumors that Mrs. Arroyo was really the one who had to go to the hospital because of a serious ailment. "It’s normal for a wife to be with her husband in such situations."

Soliman said the First Gentleman is likely to stay overnight or until Sunday morning, but added that his confinement was to finish his medical workups.

"FG (First Gentleman) is not sick. Remember, he was asked to stay to continue his examinations last week but he checked out with the President," Soliman said in a telephone interview.

Soliman said she was in Cebu as advance staff to assist Mr. Arroyo in the preparations for the activities of spouses of the ASEAN heads of state.

Soliman said Mr. Arroyo also chose to finish his tests because of the storm, as he would again be busy helping Filipino athletes taking part in the 15th Asian Games ongoing in Doha, Qatar.

The First Couple was confined at the SLMC last Saturday and they checked out on Monday, the third time since June that Mrs. Arroyo was confined at the SLMC.

Doctors advised the First Couple to shed some weight even as their medical tests showed that they remain healthy.

Dr. Juliet Gopez-Cervantes, Mrs. Arroyo’s physician, earlier told reporters that the President must lose at least two pounds, eat less carbohydrates and exercise more.

Mrs. Arroyo was rushed to the SLMC on June 22 due to infectious diarrhea. She was brought back to the same hospital a month later due to influenza.

After checking out on Monday, the President went straight to her public engagements to douse speculations about the state of her health.

"I don’t have any illness. I just had a checkup," she told a woman who inquired about her health during a dialogue with local officials in Pandacan, Manila.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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