Philippines pursues hidden backers of revolt


MANILA, AFP

The Philippine government said Tuesday it was pursuing hidden backers of a failed revolt by supporters of jailed ex-leader Joseph Estrada as general election fever grew.

Among those being monitored are business friends of Estrada who reportedly helped finance the revolt, and clandestine military groups protecting soldiers and policemen involved in the plot, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said.

He said investigations had become very sensitive ahead of the May 14 polls.

“It is an emotionally-charged situation because the elections are near,” he said.

The elections are to fill seats in the Philippine Congress and key posts in provincial, city and town governments.

It is considered a referendum on the fledgling government of President Gloria Arroyo, whose candidates are to fight Estrada’s opposition coalition for control of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

An estimated 50,000 Estrada supporters, mostly from the urban poor, stormed the presidential palace on May 1 in what officials said was a failed attempt to topple Arroyo and install a civilian-military junta.

Arroyo quashed the takeover bid by declaring a week-long “state of rebellion” that allowed her to crack down on key Estrada allies, including three of his senatorial candidates said to be the masterminds of the plot.

The government said the crowds that rioted at the presidential palace were paid, transported and fed by supporters of Estrada, who was jailed last month pending his trial on the capital crime of economic plunder.

Defense chief Reyes said any probe on the financing the revolt would have to distinguish between businessmen who merely supported pro-Estrada rallies and those who actually sponsored the march on the palace.

“It depends on what they are funding and at what (point) they were funding or supporting it,” Reyes said.

Reports said among those who could be involved were tycoon Mark Jimenez, a former Estrada adviser whose extradition is being sought by the United States.

Jimenez was indicted in Florida in 1999 for alleged tax evasion, mail fraud and illegal campaign contributions to the U.S. Democratic Party. He fled the United States and became an adviser to Estrada.

The military said it was conducting “counter-intelligence operations” against military fraternities that might be shielding two alleged leaders of the junta plot who are senatorial candidates.

Senator Gregorio Honasan, an ex-colonel involved in coup attempts in the ’80s, and Panfilo Lacson, Estrada’s ex-national police chief, have escaped arrest and have been in hiding since the failed power grab.

Both men “can still cause some disturbance and some sort of problems” even in hiding, Reyes said.

Lawyers for Honasan were Tuesday negotiating with state prosecutors for his possible surrender to the custody of Senate president Aquilino Pimentel.

The opposition has charged that Arroyo had used the state of rebellion, an extraordinary measure which she lifted on Sunday, to immobilize Estrada’s candidates and conduct mass arrests among the poor to prevent them from voting next week.

The government has denied the allegations and on Tuesday Arroyo was forced to call on her supporters to pull out advertisements linking pro Estrada candidates to last week’s riots.

The advertisements, taken out in major newspapers and over radio and television, “are not necessary at all,” Arroyo spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao said.

“She feels that her candidates on their own qualifications would win anyway,” Tiglao said.

Earlier Tuesday, about 50 jailed rioters were set free on instructions from Arroyo, who has said the poor were only manipulated to join last week’s march.