MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine president warned on Sunday of a possible terrorist attack, including bombings, during an annual Roman Catholic procession in Manila that draws millions of devotees.
President Benigno Aquino III, standing with top military, police and defense officials, told a hastily called news conference that several terrorists planning to disrupt Monday's religious procession have been sighted in the capital. Police are attempting to arrest the suspects and disrupt any planned attack, he said.
"The sad reality of the world today is that terrorists want to disrupt the ability of people to live their lives in the ways they want to, including the freedom to worship," Aquino said in the nationally televised briefing.
While there was a "heightened risk," Aquino said the possibility of a terrorist assault was not high enough for the government to make an unprecedented decision to cancel the daylong procession, which often lasts well into the night.
He said security will be tight and asked devotees not to bring cellphones or weapons. All firecrackers, which are traditionally lit during the event, will be banned and violators will be arrested, he said.
The huge number of barefoot devotees who gather during the procession through downtown Manila's narrow streets "makes it a very tempting terrorist threat," Aquino said.
Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo said without elaborating that six to nine people may be involved in the plot.
Past processions of a centuries-old image of Jesus Christ known as the Black Nazarene have been a security nightmare, even without any terrorist threat.
Tens of thousands of mostly male devotees wearing maroon shirts surge forward to touch, kiss or wipe the wooden statue, which is believed to possess mystical and healing powers.
Although hundreds get injured in the melee each year as the statue is pulled on a carriage along a three-mile (five-kilometer) route, the devotees still turn up as a personal sacrifice to atone for sins, pray for sick relatives or seek special favors.
About 8 to 9 million people are expected to join the procession Monday from Manila's seaside Rizal Park to a popular church in Quiapo district. About 1,600 policemen will be deployed in addition to an army contingent, organizers said.
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.
Some believe the statue's survival of fires and earthquakes through the centuries and intense bombings during World War II is a testament to its powers. The Philippines is Asia's largest predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
Aquino said authorities have been monitoring possible terrorist threats since August but declined to provide other details. The threat monitored by the government was not related to a U.S. government travel advisory last week which warned Americans of terror threats in the Philippines, he said.
Asked if the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group, which is based in the country's south, was behind the threat, Aquino replied that the possibility has not been confirmed. He said the terrorists monitored in the capital were Filipinos.
Abu Sayyaf militants, who are notorious for bombings, kidnappings and beheadings, have staged deadly bomb attacks in metropolitan Manila in the past. In 2004, they detonated a bomb that set off an inferno and killed 116 people aboard a ferry in Manila Bay in the country's worst terrorist attack.
U.S.-backed Philippine military offensives have considerably weakened the Abu Sayyaf, which is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations, but the group remains a key national security threat.
The Abu Sayyaf has harbored Indonesians from the Southeast Asian militant network Jemaah Islamiyah in its jungle strongholds on southern Jolo islands. The Jemaah Islamiyah was blamed for the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people, mostly Australians and other foreign tourists, in Southeast Asia's worst terrorist attack.