Security forces tried to disrupt plots by al-Qaeda-linked militants to stage attacks but failed to track them, setting off an alarm that influenced a decision to postpone a pair of Asian summits, officials said yesterday.
The plots may have included a possible car bomb attack in a key city to embarrass the Philippine government during the ASEAN summit and the East Asian summit in central Cebu province, a security official told reporters.
The Philippine government has been forced to defend its decision to postpone the summits, citing a looming typhoon. The meetings had been scheduled for this week.
The Cambodian prime minister said a possible attack also played a role, while the Japanese economic minister said the Philippines' handling of the situation had undermined its credibility.
"We respect the views of other officials in the region, but the Philippines did the right thing in taking no chances with the safety of the leaders," said Ignacio Bunye, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's spokesman.
"We all know the fickle nature of typhoons and there was no sense at all to act in a reckless and wanton manner," Bunye said in a statement.
Vic Lecaros, a spokesman for the summits' organizing committee, denied that terrorism threats played a role in the decision.
"I was in the room when that decision was taken," Lecaros said.
"People were agonizing over weather reports, not security reports ... there was no terror, whatever, it was just the weather report," he said.
"Terrorists are threatening everywhere. Those are acts of people that can be countered by security people. What you cannot counter is an act of nature," he added.
Typhoon Utor swept through the central Philippines' Visayas region over the weekend, leaving at least 17 dead and another 17 missing. But Cebu, which forecasters said was unlikely to take a direct hit, only got rain and some gusty winds. A week earlier Super Typhoon Durian killed more than 1,000 people.
Japanese Trade Minister Akira Amari said on his blog on Tuesday that Manila's explanation wasn't convincing enough.
"Considering the size of the typhoon and the fact that it would have passed by on Sunday morning, the reason for the postponement is extremely puzzling," Amari wrote, mentioning news reports that the move was triggered by terrorism concerns.
Amari said the postponement "ruined the credibility of the Philippine government," saying the whole idea of hosting the meetings at a resort island was ill-conceived.
"Just the idea of gathering the leaders of 16 countries on tourist-infested Cebu island poses an extreme security risk," Amari wrote.
In separate advisories last Thursday, the US, Britain and Australia warned terrorists might be in the final stages of plotting attacks.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Tuesday that "a typhoon on one hand and the threat of attack on the other" prompted the postponement.
"The terrorists threatened to launch an attack in the Philippines," he said.
Some Abu Sayyaf rebels, along with Indonesian members of the Jemaah Islamiyah group, were believed to have traveled from their strongholds on the southern islands of Jolo and Basilan to carry out the attacks, going through Zamboanga city, said three security officials, who had knowledge of the operations and spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Philippine intelligence agents carried out about 10 covert operations, including raids on suspected safe houses, in Zamboanga last month but failed to find the militants, the officials said.
The attacks allegedly were ordered by Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khaddafy Janjalani and top Indonesian terror suspect Dulmatin, targets of a months-long US-backed offensive on Jolo, they said.
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