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Filipino soldiers seize building, but deny coup

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 27, 2003

MANILA, Philippines - Rebellious soldiers stormed a major commercial center in Manila early today, hours after the Philippine government ordered the arrest of officers believed to be plotting a coup. The president warned the mutinous troops to surrender or face military action.

With demands that the government resign, troops in camouflage uniforms set up gun posts and rigged explosives at 3 a.m. around the outside of the Glorietta complex, which includes one of the capital's largest shopping malls.

The military sent marines close to the area. Television footage later showed them shaking hands with some of the rogue officers, raising questions about what government forces would do if ordered to mount an assault.

Around 10 a.m. local time, seven hours after the takeover began, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo went on national television and set a 5 p.m. deadline for the rebels to surrender.

"There is absolutely no justification for the actions you have taken," Arroyo said. "You have already stained the uniform. Do not drench it with dishonor. Your actions are already hovering at the fringes of outright terrorism."

The takeover began hours after Arroyo ordered a group of junior military officers arrested for mutiny after they deserted with their weapons.

In a statement, the mutinous officers demanded the government resign and said they were prepared to die to force change.

"We are not attempting to grab power. We are just trying to express our grievances," navy Lt. Sr. Grade Antonio Trillanes said.

He said the explosives were for self-defense. "If they try to take us down, we will be forced to use it," said Trillanes, who is among the officers Arroyo ordered arrested.

Trillanes claimed to have the support of 2,000 officers and soldiers. Radio reports said about 100 men were involved. They were armed with rifles and wore red armbands with a symbol of sun rays. A warning shot was fired as a delivery truck approached.

Unlike the two "people power" revolts that peacefully ousted two presidents in recent years, there appeared to be little public support for the mutiny. The military chief of staff declared loyalty to Arroyo.

Rumors of a coup plot have spread for the last week. Arroyo took action Saturday, publicly announcing she had ordered the military and police to hunt down and "arrest a small band of rogue junior officers and soldiers who have deserted their post and illegally brought weapons with them."

The officers responded in a video released just before the takeover, accusing the government of selling arms and ammunition to Muslim and communist rebels, staging recent deadly bombings to justify more aid from the United States, and preparing to declare martial law to stay in power.

Checkpoints went up around Manila and armored personnel carriers at the gates of the presidential palace were reinforced with more vehicles and elite troops.

Australian Ambassador Ruth Pearce initially was prevented from leaving a ritzy apartment complex where a number of foreign diplomats live. But all residents were later evacuated, some left carrying children and luggage. Many appeared alarmed as they passed a rebel machine gun outside the building.

National security adviser Roilo Golez said he hoped for negotiations and a peaceful resolution.

"We have to be very prudent about this," he said. "This is similar to the 1989 coup attempt."

There were several coup attempts against former President Corazon Aquino in the late 1980s by officers complaining about corruption.

In a 1989 attempt, rebellious troops also occupied the commercial center. They held onto it for several days until they were persuaded to surrender.

In their statement, the rebellious officers called themselves "Soldiers of the Nation" and talked of disillusionment over corruption and favoritism. Soldiers and officers in the past have complained about low pay. The military is poorly equipped and trained.

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

Interior Secretary Jose Lina ordered the arrest of Sen. Gregorio Honasan, citing an intelligence report reportedly linking the former army colonel to the mutiny. Honasan denied he had "influence or control" over the mall takeover.

Arroyo, a 56-year-old economist, has enjoyed generally solid public support and is one of the staunchest U.S. allies in Asia.

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