- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2002

CEBU, Philippines Muslim terrorists yesterday threatened to unleash a wave of bombings in the southern Philippines, a day after three blasts left 14 dead in the port city of General Santos.

Abu Muslim Ghazi, who claimed to be a spokesman for the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang, told Radio Mindanao Network: "We will not stop [if] the president does not stop in her program to get rid of Muslims in Mindanao."

He again claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack in General Santos, a major trading center on the southern island of Mindanao where many of the 4 million Muslim citizens of the Philippines reside.

"We are claiming responsibility because the government is calling us terrorists," Mr. Ghazi said. "There is no problem with that. We are indeed terrorists."

Vowing to "fight terrorism to the end," Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo yesterday put security forces on high alert and offered a $100,000 reward for information on the bombers.

Worries that the worst might not be over spread via cell-phone text messages in the country of 78 million, prompting stepped-up security in Manila.

The Abu Sayyaf has been holding an American missionary couple, Gracia and Martin Burnham of Wichita, Kan., hostage for nearly a year on Basilan, an island-province off the southwest coast of Mindanao. The group is being targeted by a joint U.S.-Philippine military exercise that got under way in January.

Mrs. Arroyo yesterday flew to General Santos, about 200 miles east of Basilan, to survey the damage.

"This is a grave act again of terrorists," she told a local radio station. "We need to launch a new offensive which is more intense than before."

There were conflicting reports yesterday from Malacanang, the presidential palace, about Mrs. Arroyo's intention to declare a state of emergency in some parts of southern Mindanao to combat the rising terrorism.

A similar declaration on Basilan last year allowed troops to sweep though the island in search of Abu Sayyaf guerrillas.

Police in General Santos yesterday said they arrested two suspects in the bombings, but they released no details. Despite the claims by the Abu Sayyaf spokesman, there is speculation among authorities that another group could be responsible for the bombings.

So-called "lost commands" of other Muslim secessionist groups frequently extort money from businesses and politicians in General Santos and other cities in the south.

Pedro Acharon, mayor of General Santos, said the city had returned to normal yesterday. "It's business as usual," he said in a television interview. But he advised local firms to beef up security and ordered additional police patrols.

Mrs. Arroyo has been Southeast Asia's staunchest ally in the U.S.-led war against terrorism, inviting U.S. troops to train and advise Philippine forces hunting the Abu Sayyaf.

About 660 U.S. soldiers have been in the southern Philippines since January as part of that effort. Another 2,700 began arriving over the weekend for training exercises in the northern Philippines that have been conducted annually since 1981.

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