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Bombings Unnerve Philippines

May 24, 2000

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ Shaggy police dogs sniff their way through the malls. Guards poke politely through even the smallest purse carried into public buildings.

Manila residents are on edge after a string of bombings, the last one deadly.

``I make it a point not to go near any unattended package or plastic bags because people say that most of them contain explosives,″ said Gertrudes Amoncio, 30, who was out with her husband and children on Tuesday.

People are taking taxis instead of the packed, buslike jeepneys that crowd Manila’s streets. They are skipping family outings, and shunning malls _ where two of the attacks occurred.

Politicians and editorial writers have called for calm and vigilance, but creation of a rumor-control center has been suggested. Scare after scare fizzles into nothing, then another bomb goes off.

Stocks and the peso have tumbled, and there are fears the attacks could hurt the crucial tourism industry _ problems this developing country cannot afford.

Most residents blame the country’s Muslim rebels, but responsibility for the worst violence since coup attempts against former President Corazon Aquino more than a decade ago is not easy to pin down.

The larger and more moderate of the two rebel groups fighting for an Islamic state in the southern Philippines denies involvement with at least some of the attacks in Manila and in the south, though it has threatened to bring its jungle war to the cities.

The smaller and more extreme group, the Abu Sayyaf, is thought to be too small and disorganized to mount such attacks. Its members are holding 21 Western and Asian hostages on southern Jolo Island, as well as another five Filipino children and two teachers on nearby Basilan Island.

Even the government of this mostly Roman Catholic country can’t agree on who is to blame.

National police director general Panfilo Lacson says it is probably neither the Abu Sayyaf nor the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. He blames rightists trying ``to create an atmosphere of political instability as well as economic instability.″

But Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado says the rebels are probably responsible because the attacks in Manila began after the guerrillas were pushed back by the military in the southern region of Mindanao.

A small bomb in a central Manila park slightly injured a man sleeping nearby on May 6. Then in suburban Manila, gunmen fired automatic rifles at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, and a week later a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the national police headquarters.

An explosion on May 17 at the posh Glorietta mall in Manila’s business district injured 13 people. Police, unfamiliar with the explosive used, sent fragments to the United States for analysis.

Then on Sunday, a bomb at the country’s biggest shopping center, Manila’s SM MegaMall, killed a young janitor and injured at least 11 other people.

Both mall bombs were experts’ work, the national police chief said. ``In the two cases, they had the opportunity to inflict maximum damage, but they did not,″ Lacson added.

Even the possibility of a bomb has caused chaos.

Many shoppers were injured in a stampede at a department store in the southern city of Zamboanga on Tuesday after a woman screamed, ``There’s a bomb! There’s a bomb!″

``If God is with us, who can be against us,″ said Maria Victoria Olino, 36, an assistant principal at an international school, as she tried to catch a cab in a commercial district of Manila. ``I always pray before going out of the house.″

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