DECEMBER 12, 2006 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - Responding to criticisms over the deferment of two international summits that were supposed to start in Cebu yesterday, Malacañang said it did what any responsible nation must do under the circumstances.

Officials announced Sunday that the 12th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus China, Japan and South Korea summit, and the East Asia summit, had been postponed due to typhoon "Seniang."

However, Ambassador Marciano Paynor Jr., chairman of the National Organizing Committee of the summits, said the ASEAN summit has been tentatively reset to Jan. 8 to 13.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said the postponement was understood by the countries and the leaders concerned.

"So let us not politicize this issue. What is important is we are now working based on a new schedule for the summit which we expect to be as constructive and productive as ever," Bunye said.

"Let us move forward and help promote ASEAN prosperity and security," he added.

At least five Southeast Asian leaders are attending the rescheduled ASEAN summit in January. The organizers on Sunday proposed a Jan. 11 to 13 date for the annual leaders’ meeting.

The proposal was subject to the availability of the leaders of ASEAN member nations, namely Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono "will (attend), but we will announce it in time," his spokesman Dino Patti Djalal said in Jakarta.

Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont is to join President Arroyo on the new summit date, government spokesman Yongyuth Mayalarp said in Bangkok.

Malaysian Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was also expected to attend, as will Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, spokesmen for their respective governments said.

The same Malaysian contingent of officials, ministers and the prime minister was expected to attend as of Monday, barring schedule clashes, said a Malaysian official in Kuala Lumpur.

"At the moment, there are no changes, it’s only the date which has been postponed," the official added.

It remained unclear whether any leaders from Australia, China, Japan, India, South Korea and New Zealand would be able to attend.

Those countries help to make up the East Asian summit, which was to have been held alongside ASEAN in Cebu. However, the Philippines is now reportedly considering holding the East Asian summit in February.

It has been widely reported that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is unlikely to attend the postponed summits due to his plan to visit Europe and parliamentary commitments.

He has been reported to be planning to visit Europe from Jan. 9 through 14.

The official reason given by organizers for the postponement was the possible damage Seniang might cause as the typhoon plowed into the Visayas as the ASEAN heads of state were to arrive over the weekend.

Local officials and opposition groups, however, claimed it was the disturbing travel advisories for Cebu from the United States, United Kingdom and Australia as well as the fear of massive street protests that would mar the hosting of the summits that led to Mrs. Arroyo resetting the leaders’ meetings.

National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales said there really was no credible and specific terror threat in Cebu, as claimed by the travel advisories.

"Apparently, one of the governments (that issued the travel advisories) overreacted to an unverified intelligence information," he told The STAR. "Since they share intelligence information, the other governments have also reacted the same way."

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita and Presidential Chief of Staff Michael Defensor earlier said the decision to postpone the summits was right after all as Seniang pummeled Cebu with rain and strong winds.

Defensor said the move would allow local officials more time to improve their preparations amid reports that the Cebu International Convention Center (CICC) sprung leaks over the weekend due to the rains.

ASEAN National Organizing Committee assistant secretary general for media and communications Milton Alingod said that with the postponement, they would have more time to prepare the venues for the two summits.

He also said the CICC’s leaking roof will be repaired but pointed out that this was a minor problem that could be easily addressed.

Alingod said Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia had met with the architects and contractors of the CICC to find out what should be done.

He insisted that except for some hitches in the venue preparations, everything was set for the summits that were supposed to start yesterday and end on Dec. 14.

"But of course nobody could forecast the weather," he said.

Alingod added that tourism officials were also addressing the concerns of delegates and media people who wanted a refund on their payments for hotel reservations.

"We are also trying to explain to them that they can use their reservation for next January," he said.

Alingod said they were continuously coordinating with the different governments to set the final dates for the summits in January.

He disclosed that Cebu officials accepted the decision to defer the international event and were looking forward to hosting it next month.

The government insisted a looming typhoon had been the reason for pulling the plug on the high-profile event. But after the storm passed far from the summit site on Saturday, politicians, opposition groups and analysts blasted Mrs. Arroyo’s decision.

"It’s a sign of a weak government," Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña said.

ASEAN summit spokesman Victoriano Lecaros, however, said he does not know if Osmeña "actually said that. He said during our meeting (that they will) make all necessary adjustments to make it successful. He assured his full cooperation. He was a picture of cooperativeness."

Although the Philippines has yet to receive confirmation of the ASEAN and East Asian leaders’ attendance in January, Lecaros said the government is optimistic that the schedule would be acceptable.

ASEAN and East Asian members are expected to respond in a week’s time.

According to Paynor, the tentative schedule indicates that foreign ministers will arrive on Jan. 8 and hold meetings the same day and the day after. Heads of state or their representatives will arrive on Jan. 11 for the summits.

Leaders of ASEAN countries as well as China, Japan and South Korea will meet on Jan. 12, while East Asian leaders — which includes the 10 ASEAN countries, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand — will meet on Jan 13.

Meanwhile, pro-administration Rep. Antonio Alvarez of Palawan told Mrs. Arroyo’s critics to "just take the word of Pagasa (Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration), the weather agency," regarding the postponement of the summits.

He was reacting to speculations that the President decided to postpone the summit to next month in the wake of planned widespread protest actions this week against last week’s overwhelming vote of her allies in the House of Representatives to railroad Charter change via a Senate-less constituent assembly.

Alvarez belongs to Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino, the political party Mrs. Arroyo founded in 1997 when she was senator.

ASEAN summit organizers announced in Cebu City over the weekend that the government was resetting the conference since Seniang would hit the northern part of Cebu province.

"Pagasa had shown weather maps and satellite photos, so what more are they asking for?" Alvarez said.

However, Pagasa recommended that the summit could proceed.

Organizers also denied that warnings by several foreign governments against travel to Cebu this week were behind the postponement.

The foreign governments said they had "credible information" that terrorists were planning to disrupt the summit.

Alvarez said the decision to postpone the summit was arrived at to put leaders of ASEAN and six other Asian nations "out of harm’s way."

"You can throw bodyguards around these VIPs. You can stop an assassin from approaching them. But how can you stop a typhoon? There is no protection against a typhoon," he said.

Alvarez added that "there was a real storm approaching and this intrigue that it is a political storm caused by con-ass that is the reason behind the postponement is just hot air."

He also said it was gracious of ASEAN leaders to have accepted the government’s postponement of the summit.

Troops to stay

In a related development, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said despite the postponement of the two summits due to bad weather, the military will not pull out troops earlier sent to Cebu to secure the event.

AFP public information office chief Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro said soldiers who are part of the summits’ security contingent will have to stay put until the conference pushes through early next month.

"There is no movement of troops. They have to stay put because they are already in place. The areas where the summit would be held have been cleared and secured. If they leave, they would have to start the security preparations all over again," he said.

Bacarro said the month-long postponement would allow the military to further test security preparations for the summits.

"We would just maintain the level of control in terms of security of the area," he said.

Asked whether the AFP made such a decision to prevent terrorist groups from taking advantage of the military’s absence from the summits’ venues, Bacarro said they "are prepared to address any security threat."

The AFP earlier deployed 5,500 Army and Marine troops. The Philippine Air Force (PAF) also deployed night-capable UH1H and MG-520 attack helicopters, OV-10 Bronco bomber planes and C130 carriers to provide air support to ground troops in the area, as well as to provide airport security.

PAF spokesman Maj. Augusto dela Peña said this deployment of their air assets will help ensure the security of all heads of state and other VIPs who will attend the summit.

AFP chief of staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon earlier said the military does not foresee any terrorist attack during the summit, but they are not taking any chances.

— With Jess Diaz, Pia Lee-Brago, James Mananghaya, AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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