MANILA, Philippines (AP) — An annual Roman Catholic procession that draws millions of devotees made its way through Manila's crowded streets Monday amid the Philippine president's warning of a possible terrorist attack on the celebration, including bombings.
President Benigno Aquino III, standing with top military, police and defense officials, said at a hastily called news conference Sunday that several terrorists planning to disrupt the religious procession have been sighted in the capital. Police are attempting to arrest the suspects and disrupt any planned attack, he said.
Australia on Monday urged its citizens to avoid the procession and nearby areas and to exercise a high degree of caution in the Philippines because of the threat of terrorist attack.
"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 the unprecedented decision to cancel the 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 present "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.
Hundreds get injured in the melee each year as the statue is pulled on a carriage along a three-mile (five-kilometer) route, but devotees still turn up as a personal sacrifice to atone for sins, pray for sick relatives or seek special favors.
Some 8 million to 9 million people are expected to join the procession from Manila's seaside Rizal Park to a popular church in Quiapo district. About 1,600 policemen and an army contingent have been deployed, organizers said.
On Monday morning, devotees offered prayers during a Mass led by Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle for victims of last month's Tropical Storm Washi and last week's killer landslide at a gold mining site in southern Compostela Valley province.
After the Mass, devotees rushed forward to touch the statue as it was brought down from the stage to start the procession. Some were seen falling to the ground in the crush, but no serious injuries were reported.
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 that 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 in Southeast Asia's worst terrorist attack.
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