- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2003

CEBU, Philippines — Renegade soldiers seeking to topple the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo seized a shopping mall in the capital, Manila, and rigged it with explosives early today.

Mrs. Arroyo had given the rebellious soldiers seven hours — until 5 a.m. EDT today — to surrender or face military action.

The soldiers had been holding Australian Ambassador Ruth Pearce in the complex, but she was allowed to leave the building this morning in the city’s financial district. Two unidentified Americans are believed to still be in the complex.

Rumors of an impending coup have been sweeping the country for weeks, and Mrs. Arroyo at first dismissed the notion of any serious threat. But today, she suddenly ordered the arrest of 10 junior officers for abandoning their posts and illegally taking their weapons with them.

Hours later, the mutinous troops, heavily armed and wearing camouflage uniforms, stormed the upscale Glorietta commercial center, and rigged explosive throughout the complex.

The group, calling themselves “Soldiers of the Nation,” said they were acting out of frustration over corruption in the government and military. They have accused their superiors of selling arms to Islamic terrorists in the southern Philippines and staging bombings to win more anti-terrorism aid from Washington.

“We demand the resignation of our leaders in the present regime,” they said in a statement. “We are willing to sacrifice our lives today to pursue a program not tainted with politicking.”

While the defense secretary and the armed forces chief of staff reiterated their support for Mrs. Arroyo, the incident represents yet another setback for a country overwhelmed by hostage-takings, terrorist bombings, coups and the embarrassing escape earlier this month from police headquarters of a high-ranking al Qaeda-linked terrorist.

“This is a situation we have to resolve as soon as possible because it will affect the economy, the stock market and everything,” Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said after emerging from an emergency Cabinet meeting.

A military spokesman raised the possibility that the coup attempt had the backing of former President Joseph Estrada, who is in jail awaiting trial on charges of economic plunder.

“We do not want to believe it yet, but there is information which we are verifying that [the plotters] are connected with the Estrada group,” said Lt. Gen. Rodolfo Garcia, a military spokesman.

The Philippines has a long history of coup attempts sparked by various factions within the 120,000-member armed forces. President Corazon Aquino, who came to power in a “People’s Power” revolt that toppled longtime strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1987, survived seven coup attempts.

Coup plotters in the Philippines have not been severely punished in the past. One former soldier who led a bloody 1989 coup that sent army tanks into the financial district is now a senator. Another coup leader was ordered to do 25 push-ups as a punishment.

The group holding the commercial center includes about 20 officers, many graduates of the elite Philippine Military Academy, and 40 to 50 other heavily armed men, including several believed to be explosives experts.

The government was taking a cautious approach, with loyal forces surrounding the seized buildings but making no aggressive moves.

The Philippines, a former U.S. colony, has been ravaged by an ongoing Muslim insurgency in the south. Mrs. Arroyo, an economist educated in the United States, has been America’s chief Asian ally in the war on terrorism.

This article was based in part on wire reports

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