Philippine officials verifying Manila terror plot

By JIM GOMEZ | June 15, 2011 | 11:29 PM EDT

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine authorities on Thursday verified an intelligence report seen by The Associated Press that a top Asian terrorist suspect and the notorious Abu Sayyaf extremist group have sent militants to bomb targets in the capital, Manila.

Military and police intelligence officials said they are taking the report seriously, although it remains unsubstantiated and comes from only one source. They say intelligence operatives have been deployed in metropolitan Manila to thwart any attack.

The U.S. State Department on Tuesday renewed its travel warning for the Philippines, saying terrorist attacks could occur in the restive southern Philippines and even in Manila. The U.S. Embassy did not cite any specific reason for the latest warning.

The Philippine government has complained that such warnings fail to take into account an improving security situation.

Government troops and police have killed and captured hundreds of Abu Sayyaf militants in past years and the few recent attacks attributed to them have been mostly confined to far-flung communities on the southern islands of Basilan and Jolo. Surviving militants have been on the run in the jungles and crippled by a lack of funds, the military says.

Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, a long-wanted terrorist suspect believed to be hiding in the southern Mindanao region, and the Abu Sayyaf deployed a few militants to bomb still-unspecified targets in Manila, the government report said.

One of two security officials who have seen the report said one date mentioned for the possible bombings was June 12, when the country celebrated its Independence Day, but no attack happened. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

The military commander in the capital, Tristan Kison, said he has not seen the report but added that authorities were constantly on the lookout for any threat from "people with bad intentions."

Zulkifli bin Hir, a U.S.-trained Malaysian engineer also known as Marwan, has been accused by U.S. and Philippine authorities of involvement in a number of deadly bombings in the country. Washington has offered a $5 million reward for his capture.

The latest travel advisory for U.S. citizens replaces a similar warning issued in November. The U.S., along with Australia, Britain, Canada, France and New Zealand, warned of possible terrorist attacks in the Philippines, including in Manila, at the time but no violence transpired.

President Benigno Aquino III has expressed dismay at the series of travel warnings, saying his government was not informed about the advisories even though they came from the country's allies. He said the advisories jeopardized tourism and fostered public anxiety.

Abu Sayyaf militants were blamed for the bombing of a ferry in Manila Bay in 2004, setting off an inferno that killed 116 people. A year later, the militants claimed responsibility for bombings of a bus in Manila and two southern towns that killed eight people and wounded more than 100 others.

The militants are based in the country's south, where Muslim rebels have been fighting for minority self-rule for decades.