The Philippines lifted a terrorist alert in the capital yesterday after millions of Roman Catholic devotees ended a 22-hour parade of a Christ statue that authorities feared was a tempting target for Muslim extremists.
Authorities had deployed a massive police cordon after Philippine President Benigno Aquino III warned over the weekend that terrorists might target the raucous annual procession. After the parade ended, they said the event a success and lifted the security alert in Manila.
The government did not have specific intelligence on a terrorist plot. Still, about 15,000 policemen, backed by hundreds of army troops, secured the 5km procession route for the charred wooden Black Nazarene statue from seaside Rizal Park to a popular church in Manila’s congested Quiapo district.
Air force helicopters stood by and cellphone service was blocked in procession areas to prevent its use to trigger bombs. Despite the president’s warning, huge crowds of devotees wearing maroon shirts surged near the statue, believed to have healing powers.
Devotees waving handkerchiefs and towels let out shouts of “viva,” as the statue was finally brought inside the church at the end of the grueling procession.
Aquino announced at a hastily called news conference on Sunday that several terrorists had been reported in Manila with plans to disrupt the procession, but that the threat was not high enough to cancel the event and that police would work to keep it safe.
Aquino’s warning sparked one of the most elaborate security deployments for an event in the capital in recent years.
Philippine Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin said the threat, involving possible bombings by two groups of Muslim militants from the country’s volatile south, prompted police to raid several suspected terrorist hideouts in the Manila area, but without any results.
There were suspicions that attackers might come from two radical Muslim groups, including the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, which is on a US list of terrorist organizations for deadly bombings, kidnappings and beheadings.
The procession was delayed for hours because the wheels of the carriage carrying the statue broke.
Police said at least 3 million mostly barefoot devotees took part in the event.
The wooden statue of Christ, crowned with thorns and bearing a cross, is believed to have been brought from Mexico to Manila in 1606 by Spanish missionaries. The ship that carried it caught fire, but the charred statue survived and was named the Black Nazarene.