Mon, Apr 12, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Washington seeks tougher terror crackdown

PHILIPPINE VIOLENCE The Bush administration believes Philippine officials have been in a state of denial about the terrorist threat and wants them to take tougher measures


The administration of US President George W. Bush has quietly warned the Philippine government that it has not been doing enough to crack down on terrorist groups in the country, Western and Philippine officials said.

The diplomatic reproach, which has not been made public, was delivered to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at a late-night meeting nearly three weeks ago and comes after two years of public praise from Washington for her support in the Bush administration's campaign against terrorism.

It also comes after a reassessment of the terrorist capacities, objectives and international connections of Abu Sayyaf, the Philippine rebel group that has a reputation for kidnapping and beheading hostages.

At the same time, a new Islamic organization has emerged that claims Muslims were here before the Spaniards, who brought Christianity, and focuses on converting Christians to Islam, then sending them for terrorist training. US officials said they know little about the group.

In spite of recent arrests, which came as a result of the American warning, there is still a high level of tension here about the possibility of a terrorist attack. There is a lot of chatter on intercepted phone conversations that has everyone worried, Western and Philippine officials said.

The warning that the Americans delivered to the Arroyo government is similar to one they delivered to the Indonesian government in the weeks before the attacks in Bali in October 2002.

The Philippine government has been "in a state of denial" about the terrorist threat, said a Western diplomat, explaining what prompted the American warning, which was made on March 22. The US was joined by Australia and Britain in the warning, diplomats and Philippine officials said.

Over a period of months, the US had given the Philippines intelligence that should have led to the arrest of suspected terrorists, including the leader of Abu Sayyaf, and the Philippine government did not act, one Western diplomat said.

Asked about the warning, Arroyo's national security adviser, Norberto Gonzales, said, "I think they have changed their position by now."

After hearing the three Western diplomats on March 22, Gonzales was so alarmed that he arranged for them to meet late that same night with Arroyo, a diplomat said.

Eight days later, the Philippine authorities, acting on intelligence provided by the US, arrested several people who, they said, were planning a series of attacks in Manila.

But other members of the same cell are still at large, a Western official said. "Are we out of the woods?" he asked. "No."

On Tuesday, the US Justice Department began proceedings that could lead to the extradition of one of those arrested, Alhamser Manatad Limbong.

Along with several other suspected members of Abu Sayyaf, Limbong was indicted by a federal grand jury in Washington in December 2002, charged with the kidnapping and murder of several Americans.

After his capture, he confessed to taking part in the beheading of one American hostage, Guillermo Sobero, in June 2001, Philippine officials said.

They said that another of the six people arrested on March 30 had confessed to planting an explosive device, concealed inside a television, on a ferry in Manila harbor.

The ferry attack caused an explosion and fire that killed more than 100 people.

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