MANILA, Philippines - President Aquino has warned of a terrorist threat to the traditional procession of the Black Nazarene today, which always draws a massive crowd.
Aquino yesterday revealed a plot by what he described as “extremist elements” to sow terror including a possible bomb attack during the procession of the Feast of the Black Nazarene.
Appearing with several Cabinet members and security officials in a televised news conference, Aquino said the threats date back to as early as August 2011. He did not specify which terrorist group posed the risk to the procession, but said it is a local group whose foreign counterpart is still being verified.
“There have been reports that they have been spotted in the NCR (National Capital Region) and there have been ongoing police operations to apprehend the same, and various disruption activities have been conducted precisely to forestall any possibility of a terrorist attack,” Aquino said.
The President assured the public that security measures are in place to ensure the safety of devotees.
But he warned devotees to be more cautious and vigilant in attending the procession.
“I call on our fellow citizens to exercise maximum vigilance and discipline leading up to, and during, the procession. Report any and all suspicious behavior directly to the authorities, or by calling 117,” he suggested.
Aquino also warned devotees not to bring weapons, mobile phones and fireworks in attending the procession.
He explained that mobile phones could be used to trigger improvised explosive devices.
“Anyone who is caught bringing or using fireworks will be apprehended. Monitor and obey our warnings and instructions. This is for the safety and well being of all,” Aquino warned.
He called on the public to forgo their yearly rituals if they want to be safe. “Previously, the difference between their (terrorist) intentions and capabilities has been quite pronounced. The possibility prompts us to warn you of the risk in attending the procession,” he said.
Aquino ordered the Philippine National Police (PNP) to increase visibility during the procession.
The President also tasked Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Lt. Gen. Jessie Dellosa to provide additional security measures.
“To those who will be attending you will note increased security preparations and measures. Your government wants to ensure to the fullest extent of its capabilities, your safety. We ask for your understanding and cooperation,” Aquino said.
While downplaying the local group’s capability to sow terror, Aquino stressed the need for heightened alert to inform the devotees about the dangers of attending this year’s procession.
“Unfortunately, lately we have been getting some information that leads us to believe that there is a heightened risk and, therefore, we are taking the necessary precaution especially given the nature of the procession for the Black Nazarene which involves quite a huge number of people and makes it a very tempting terrorist threat,” he explained.
He said the terror threat in terms of probability is “kinda low.”
“I’m not saying that the probability has increased dramatically but there has been an increase and we would not want to unduly increase the risk to our populace that’s why we’re coming up with this warning,” he said.
The President clarified, however, that this warning has nothing to do with US terrorist advisory against the Philippines last Jan. 5.
“There was no connection between the terrorist advisory and the discovery. We really want to emphasize that there’s a uniqueness to the threat level that our people will have to face,” he said.
Aquino noted the risks of the devotees converging from the Quirino Grandstand and marching to Quiapo Church.
“It will become narrower and narrower and you will have the people flocked into more and more dense arrangements which becomes more and more ideal for a terrorist who wants to inflict terror,” he pointed out.
“There will be very few major public gatherings that will have a nature or are of similar nature. And that’s why we feel that it is very prudent on our part and it is part of our task to ensure that our people have the necessary information for them to be able to make the appropriate decisions,” he said.
When asked if it would be a bomb threat, he replied: “There is a possibility. Is there a certainty that has not been determined? There was a very risk on that - we would have moved to cancel the procession.”
“But as of this time, there is not that high - that high probability does not yet exist,” the President said, refusing to say whether the government is already on heightened alert.
“We are preparing to the maximum of our abilities because, again, of the number of people involved given the geography and topography of the procession route. You will have the densest concentration perhaps in a public gathering in something like the procession for the Black Nazarene,” he stressed.
Aquino did not identify the terror group but said some of its suspected members have been arrested.
“We’ve been after them. A lot of their cohorts are already in jail. But we cannot say that we have arrested everybody… it’s like on a hot pursuit of everybody else has not yet been arrested. But their (lawmen) efforts are still continuing (to apprehend them),” he said.
More than 4,000 policemen will be deployed today to secure today’s procession.
Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Nicanor Bartolome had placed the entire 15,000-strong police force in Metro Manila under full alert status as part of a comprehensive security and public safety plan to provide assistance to the devotees.
Bartolome also ordered the Manila Police District (MPD) to implement the ban on the use of firecrackers and pyrotechnic devices to avoid injuries and to prevent panic during the feast.
The MPD will be also be on heightened alert as eight million devotees are expected to troop to the Quirino grandstand and Quiapo district for the procession.
MPD director Senior Superintendent Alejandro Gutierrez created task force group “Nazareno,” composed of more than 1,600 policemen from MPD and augmented by policemen from the National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO).
The task force would spearhead the security and emergency operations during the annual event.
“We already formed augmentation coming from different districts pf the National Capital Region Police Office to help us secure the devotees going to Quiapo Church. We will be placing the entire Manila on heightened alert once the devotees started coming in,” Gutierrez said.
The MPD said last year’s commemoration of the “translacion” of the Black Nazarene drew some 7.5 million, maroon-clothed “Hijos del
Señor Nazareno” (Sons of the Lord Nazarene) devotees.
Task force commander Senior Superintendent Fidel Posadas said they are expecting the number of devotees to swell to eight million this year – the 405th celebration of the feast – even as the occasion will fall on the start of the working week.
NCRPO chief Director Alan Purisima ordered policemen to be in their respective posts starting 6 a.m. or earlier.
Because of the cloudy weather, Purisima urged policemen to bring along their issued raincoats or umbrellas.
“Rain or shine we will be in our respective posts to secure the procession from any possible threat,” Purisima said.
Purisima warned criminals from taking advantage of the situation.
He said plainclothes policemen would also be deployed along with the seven million expected devotees.
“We have enough forces not only to secure the procession of the Black Nazarene but also to thwart the evil intentions of criminals,” he said.
The PNP has also mobilized its Health Service and deploys its field paramedics and emergency medical teams to assist the devotees.
Other groups such as the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) will also deploy volunteers along the route of the procession.
The PRC has deployed at least 350 volunteers ready to give first aid to devotees.
“Red Cross volunteers will be deployed to different areas along the procession route to ensure the safety of the public and to render services such as first aid stations, foot patrol first aiders, ambulance service, water rescue and welfare desk,” PRC secretary-general Gwendolyn Pang said.
Pang added the PRC has also set up 11 first aid and health stations and deployed over 50 ambulances as well as other rescue vehicles for today’s procession.
The venerated image of the Black Nazarene will leave the Grandstand at 8 a.m. today after the concelebrated Mass to be officiated by Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle.
The procession will pass through Katigbak Drive, Taft Avenue, MacArthur Bridge, and the streets of Palanca, Quezon Boulevard, Arlegui, Fraternal, Vergara, Duque de Alba, Castillejos, Farnecio, Arlegui, Nepomuceno, Aguila, Carcer, Hidalgo, Bilibid Viejo, Guzman, Hidalgo, Barbosa, Globo de Oro, Villalobos and finally at the Quiapo Church through Plaza Miranda. –Cecille Suerte Felipe, Edu Punay, Non Alquitran, Mayen Jaymalin, Helen Flores