Terror alert on eve of Philippines poll

Bomb plot foiled in capital amid fears that southern island of Mindanao has become a new haven for Islamist groups
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The Independent Online

Philippine authorities are on high alert for a terrorist attack aimed at disrupting tomorrow's presidential election, warning that the southern island of Mindanao has become the main training ground for the regional Islamist militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Philippine authorities are on high alert for a terrorist attack aimed at disrupting tomorrow's presidential election, warning that the southern island of Mindanao has become the main training ground for the regional Islamist militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

A series of arrests in recent weeks has foiled plots to plant bombs in Manila in the run-up to the election, in which the President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is facing a challenge by a popular former film star, Fernando Poe. "Undoubtedly, we have saved some lives," said one Western diplomat. "But sooner or later, our luck is going to run out."

JI, blamed for the Bali nightclub bombs and other attacks around the region, has infiltrated Mindanao, where it has joined forces with the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Milf) and Abu Sayyaf, the group that carried out a spate of kidnappings of foreigners in 2000 and 2001.

Among those recently detained are four members of an alleged joint JI/Milf cell, who - according to Philippine security officials - were responsible for two explosions in Mindanao last year and were planning further attacks. The men, shown off to the media by Mrs Arroyo during a visit to Davao, Mindanao's biggest city, have allegedly confessed to JI links.

In late March, Mrs Arroyo said security forces had thwarted a plot to carry out a "Madrid-level attack" after arresting six alleged Abu Sayyaf members in Manila. One is said to have confessed to planting a bomb on a ferry that caught fire in Manila Bay in February, killing 100 people.

The co-operation between JI and separatist groups fighting for independence for the mainly Muslim southern Philippines has alarmed local security officials and Western diplomats. One US official said that Mindanao was now the principal haven for regional Islamist terrorists, providing a congenial environment to train and raise funds.

"It's like Afghanistan a few years ago," he said. "The links between JI and local groups are increasingly strong and complex, and increasingly disturbing as far as the security situation is concerned."

The US-led action in Afghanistan and the crackdown on JI in Indonesia have made Mindanao appealing as an alternative base. About 70 JI members are believed to be there at any one time, training in two or three camps. With its lawless environment and porous sea borders, the island is an ideal sanctuary.

Al-Qa'ida, the global terrorist network with which JI is closely linked, is known to have sent personnel and money to the mainly Catholic Philippines. Last week, authorities uncovered a money trail initiated by Hambali, a senior al-Qa'ida/JI figure now in US custody, who sent $25,000 to Mindanao to finance JI operations.

Mrs Arroyo has been a staunch US ally in the "war against terror", and American troops have been in the southern Philippines for the past two years, training local military units. However, the constitution prevents foreign forces from taking part in combat operations, and there are only a few dozen American troops left.

While the US presence helped to weaken Abu Sayyaf, the group is still seen as a major security threat. Authorities are desperate to apprehend its leader, Khadaffy Janjalani, believed to be hiding in the jungles of Mindanao.

The Philippine military is regarded as ill-equipped to counter the terrorist problem by itself. Last month, 53 people - including 20 Abu Sayyaf rebels - escaped from a prison on the island of Basilan.

The government is locked in Norwegian-brokered peace talks with the Milf, but the group is highly factionalised and renegade commanders are believed to be protecting JI fugitives.

While US diplomats urged Mrs Arroyo to "stay focused" on counter-terrorism during the election campaign, some Western officials fear the recent flurry of activity has been, at least in part, politically motivated. "The question is whether it will be kept up after the election," one official said. "They have made dents in the problem, but not significant inroads."

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