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Suspects: Expect Philippine Attacks

April 23, 2002

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ Two men arrested for a deadly series of bombings in the southern Philippines claimed it was part of a ``destabilization″ campaign that includes targets in the capital, police said Tuesday.

The suspects, Bobby Sabilo and Mulikin Adam Ambi, were arrested in a pre-dawn raid Monday in a village outside General Santos, the southern city where three bombs exploded in public places Sunday, killing 15 people and injuring 71.

``From our tactical interrogation ... (the bombing campaign) is not just General Santos, this is throughout the Philippines,″ Bartoleme Baluyot, police chief for the central Mindanao region, said by telephone. ``Their plan is destabilization, create disturbances.″

City police chief George Aquisap said the men claimed to have received training in the Middle East while Baluyot said they trained in Malaysia. Both were charged Tuesday with illegal weapons possession, and police said they were preparing murder charges.

Baluyot said witnesses reported seeing them leave a bag in a motorcycle taxi outside a department store, where the bomb that caused all the fatalities exploded. It killed 14 people Sunday, and another victim died Monday night.

Thirty-four people injured in the three blasts remained hospitalized.

Authorities were taking the threat of further bombings seriously. ``We don’t know why they want to create disturbances,″ Baluyot said. ``They said they have people in Manila... so we cannot just laugh that off.″

On Monday, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo sought to calm the nation by ordering a crackdown on terrorists that included a $100,000 reward, a nationwide security alert and plans for curfews and checkpoints where needed.

A rash of warnings via cell phone text messages _ one of the main forms of communication in the Philippines _ focused on Manila as the next target. Similar text messages circulated in General Santos just before Sunday’s bombings.

Despite a claim of responsibility, police said they were uncertain who organized the bombings, which took place in an area where relatives sometimes belong to different anti-government groups and support each other.

A man who claimed he was from the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf told a radio station an hour before the first blast that 18 bombs had been planted around General Santos. He called back Monday to warn of more attacks in retaliation for a U.S.-backed offensive against the al-Qaida-linked group on Basilan island, also in the southern Philippines.

Sabilo and Ambi were initially described as belonging to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF. But Baluyot said Tuesday they were former members of another Muslim separatist group with a very similar name, the Moro National Liberation Front, or MNLF.

``It is possible they joined forces with the Abu Sayyaf, which did not have a camp (in General Santos) before,″ he said.

Authorities have said armed groups in the south, where Muslim rebels have been fighting to carve out a separate state for years, occasionally forge temporary alliances.

The MNLF signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996. The MILF agreed to a cease-fire last year but has occasionally clashed with government forces despite the truce.

The government has vowed to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf, calling it a group of bandits, and U.S. troops are training Philippine soldiers in an effort to help them defeat the guerrillas, who have held missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan. and a Filipino nurse hostage on Basilan for nearly 11 months.

U.S. military spokesman Lt. Commander Jeff Gordon said the bombings had no effect on the American operations.

``We are fully prepared to defend ourselves,″ he said. ``We realized this was an environment where there was a threat since we arrived in January, and all our forces are keeping their heads on a swivel.″

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