Pope Francis sees ‘shadows, dangers’

Perseus Echeminada - The Philippine Star

VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis on Thursday told Italian police officers in charge of security around the Vatican that he saw “shadows and dangers” amid reports of threats to his life, but urged them not to give in to fear.

This developed as a former military intelligence officer claimed there were two attempts to assassinate the pope during his visit in the Philippines – one in Manila and another in Tacloban, Leyte.

Four plotters with links to al-Qaeda were nearly cornered by Manila police hours before the mass in Rizal Park last Sunday but they managed to slip away in the ensuing commotion, the retired officer claimed.

The Philippine government has publicly denied any terrorist plot to assassinate the pope during the visit.

“On the horizon we see shadows and dangers which worry humanity,” the pope said in the wake of an increase in security around the Vatican amid fears Islamic State (IS) extremists may be plotting to attack the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

“As Christians we are called not to lose heart or be discouraged,” Francis said in a new year’s message to the Vatican police.

Security was tightened in Saint Peter’s Square in September after intelligence services intercepted a possible plan to attack the Vatican.

Iraq’s ambassador to the Holy See, Habib Al Sadr, at the time warned that “what has been declared by the self-declared Islamic State is clear. They want to kill the pope. The threats against the pope are credible.”

In the Philippines, a confidential memorandum was circulated to certain police stations, ordering an inventory of foreigners in their custody as part of security preparations for the pope’s visit from Jan. 15 to 19. Citizens of an Asian country were singled out for possible terrorist links.

Thousands of police and military personnel were deployed throughout the pope’s visit, during which he declined to ride in bulletproof vehicles or wear a flak vest underneath his cassock. Cell phone signals, commonly used to set off explosives, were jammed wherever he went.

Some worry Francis has made himself a target by speaking out against the Islamic State group and having the Holy See voice support for US air strikes in Iraq.

Italy’s interior minister this month said police were on high alert in key locations across Rome and around the Vatican after the Paris attacks claimed by Yemen-based al-Qaeda.

In Manila, the former military intelligence officer said the first attempt to kill the pope was supposed to be carried out by an Iran-trained nuclear engineer posing as a relief worker during the Jan. 17 motorcade from Tacloban City to Palo, Leyte, with a powerful explosive to be set off by remote control.

But Storm Amang brought continuous rains and strong winds, forcing the pontiff to change his schedule and cut short his visit even if it was the principal reason for his trip to the Philippines. The attack was called off.

The source claimed the second bomb attack was supposed to be carried out along T.M. Kalaw street in Manila during the Sunday mass at the Quirino Grandstand in Rizal Park. But the huge crowd prevented the plotters from getting close to the papal convoy.

There was a melee as police and military operatives nearly caught the suspects who were trying to sneak into the lone entrance early Sunday.

“The suspects took advantage of the commotion to elude arrest,” the source claimed.

The four-man team was allegedly led by a certain Usman.

The source, a recipient of a gold cross during his military service, is known as the “Phantom” in the intelligence community. Upon retirement, he became part of a group of freelance bounty hunters targeting wanted terrorists. He said his group had been able to collect rewards for al-Qaeda members in the past, with the money shared with moles within the terrorist cells.

He claimed they have monitored at least 100 terror suspects who recently returned to the Philippines after undergoing training with the Islamic State.

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