Wed, Feb 16, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Rebels' `gift' leaves 9 people dead

BLASTS Calling them `gifts' for President Gloria Arroyo, Abu Sayyaf rebels detonated bombs in three cities in what military officials say is a diversion tactic

AP , MANILA

Police investigators gather evidence at the wreckage of a passenger bus following an explosion in Makati, south of Manila, Monday.

PHOTO: AP

Police beefed up already tight security nationwide yesterday after bombs exploded in three cities within an hour, killing nine people and injuring 145 in an apparent ploy to distract the government from a major offensive against Muslim militants in the south.

Officials said an additional bombing may have been thwarted when a man in suburban Manila fled from approaching police and left a bag of explosives just before the rash of bombings Monday that the Abu Sayyaf militant group called a Valentine's "gift" for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Her spokesman condemned "these barbaric attacks on civilians." Top police officials were holding closed-door strategy sessions, and Arroyo was consulting with Muslim leaders.

Police offered a 500,000-peso (US$9,090) reward for the bombers. Officers used composite sketches, based on witness accounts, to search for two men who jumped off a bus just before it exploded in flames on a busy Manila highway, killing five and injuring 94.

Police sought two other men who left two boxes beside a concrete wall outside a bus terminal in the southern city of Davao, where a bomb killed one and injured eight.

In the southern city of General Santos, another blast in a three-wheel taxi stand outside a mall killed three and injured 43. The Abu Sayyaf claimed responsibility in a call to a radio station and warned of another attack to come. The Manila bomb exploded soon after.

"These are despicable acts of terror, and we ask the people to brace themselves against these attacks on our freedom and security," presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said.

Officials had worried about diversionary attacks as troops poured onto Jolo island for running clashes with supporters of a renegade Muslim separatist leader, backed by Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. The clashes have killed at least 60 on both sides since gunmen attacked a military patrol eight days ago.

"We can really see that they're facing difficulty so they're resorting to this diversionary action by targeting civilians," said Lieutenant General Alberto Braganza, chief of the military's Southern Command, who vowed no letup in the artillery-backed offensive in mountainous terrain.

The entire 114,000-member national police force was on high alert. Manila police chief Pedro Bulaong said checkpoints have been intensified at crowded places, including rail stations and bus terminals frequented by commuters. An oil depot near the presidential palace also was secured.

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