Rebel troops in Philippines surrender after 19-hour siege at shopping centre

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The Independent Online

Philippine soldiers who stormed a commercial centre in central Manila and wired it with explosives, provoking fears of a coup attempt, surrendered yesterday without a shot being fired.

Led by a group of former classmates from an elite military academy, the renegade soldiers provoked a day of high drama after taking over the Glorietta centre in the Makati financial district.

Up to 300 people, mainly foreigners including the Australian ambassador, Ruth Pierce, were trapped inside the neighbouring Oakwood Tower apartment block. They were later allowed to leave, but tanks and loyalist troops surrounded the complex as government officials negotiated with rebels demanding the resignation of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her Defence Minister, Angelo Reyes.

About 50 soldiers surrendered but the rest ignored two deadlines to give themselves up. The stand-off ended after nearly 19 hours when the remainder ­ 296 soldiers including 70 officers ­ agreed to end the siege and march back to barracks. Ms Arroyo, who had threatened to use force to end the crisis, announced the peaceful resolution in a televised address from the presidential palace. She said the rebel soldiers would be dealt with "in accordance with the articles of war". Observers warned, however, that the soldiers' grievances were unresolved and speculated that the mutiny was just the first act in a campaign to destabilise her. Some suggested that its goal was to overshadow her state of the nation address today.

The incident is deeply embarrassing for the government, which is one of America's staunchest allies in the fight against terrorism. It follows the escape last week of three suspected terrorists who walked out of their cells in the main police camp in Manila during a visit by the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard.

The confrontation began after Ms Arroyo ordered the arrest on Saturday of junior officers who had deserted with their weapons. Rumours of a planned coup had been circulating for days. At 3am local time, the renegade troops took over the Glorietta complex, positioning snipers on the rooftop and rigged it with explosives.

The heavily armed soldiers were led by officers who had graduated from the Philippines Military Academy in the mid-1990s and had ­ in many cases ­ been decorated for gallantry in the fight against Muslim rebels in the south. Some used mobile telephones to tell their superiors they were going "underground".

But they denied they were mounting a coup. In a video released just before they seized the centre, they accused the government of a litany of sins: selling arms and ammunition to Muslim separatists and Communist rebels, staging bombings to secure additional aid from the US and preparing to declare martial law to stay in power.

Ms Arroyo, who held an emergency cabinet meeting, told the soldiers there was "absolutely no justification" for their actions. "You have already stained the uniform; do not drench it with dishonour," she said. "Your actions are already hovering at the fringes of downright terrorism." Drama became tinged with farce when loyalist troops sent to surround the Glorietta warmly greeted their former comrades inside.