Rebel officers surrender in Manila

Posted in Asia | 30-Nov-07 | Author: Carlos Conde| Source: International Herald Tribune

Philippine marines park armored vehicles, used to storm the building, in the lobby of the Manila Peninsula Hotel in metro Manila on Thursday.

MANILA: Philippine SWAT teams stormed a five-star hotel commandeered by dissident army officers Thursday, arresting a senator, a former vice president, a Catholic bishop and several journalists after a seven-hour standoff.

The confrontation began when about 30 officers and soldiers on trial for staging coup attempts in 2003 and 2006 walked out of the courtroom and took over the nearby Peninsula Manila Hotel, demanding the ouster of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and calling for an uprising against the government.

About an hour after a deadline for the men to surrender elapsed, the police fired tear gas into the hotel lobby, then rammed an armored personnel carrier through the front entrance, transforming one of the country's most opulent hotels into a war zone. Shots were fired, although it remained unclear by whom.

At least two people were injured, the police said. Most of the hotel guests and staff had been evacuated.

Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, the leader of dissident officers and the soldiers supporting them, said they had ended the standoff for fear that the violence would escalate and put the lives of civilians in danger.

"We cannot live with our conscience if one of you will get hurt or killed in the cross-fire," he said. "We're getting out for the sake of the safety of everybody."

Trillanes, former Vice President Teofisto Guingona and several journalists, including television cameramen and technicians, were handcuffed and shoved into a police bus. Police officials said the journalists were arrested to ensure that they were not mutineers in disguise.

Later, the government announced an overnight street curfew for Manila and two suburban areas.

The scene at the hotel Thursday was reminiscent of the same officers' takeover of the nearby Oakwood hotel in July 2003.

In that incident, hundreds of soldiers took up arms against the Arroyo government, complaining of corruption in the government and in the military.

This time, however, few supporters appeared at the Peninsula Manila, despite the officers' attempts to foment a popular uprising through text messages and news releases.

Some members of the political opposition and the left, including Guingona, and a couple of Catholic bishops, went to the hotel to give their support to Trillanes and his companions, saying that this could be another "People Power" uprising similar to those in 1986 and 2001.

Brigadier General Danilo Lim, who is accused of leading a failed coup attempt in 2006, defended the takeover of the hotel, citing Arroyo's "theft" of the presidency in the 2004 elections and the failure of impeachment proceedings in the legislature.

"Dissent without action is consent," Lim said in a statement read during an impromptu press conference in the hotel.

"We have individually and collectively tried all means to resolve this legitimacy issue through the normal electoral, judicial and congressional processes, but Arroyo used naked power" to stop attempts to impeach her, the statement said.

Trillanes — a former naval officer who led a mutiny in 2003, and who successfully ran for the Senate this year while behind bars — said he was forced to act because he had not been permitted take his seat in the Senate.

"The people voted for me so that I can stand up for their rights, but they didn't allow me to serve," he told reporters in the lobby of the hotel.

Trillanes, Lim and the soldiers walked out of their hearing this morning while the court was on a break. They then marched toward the Peninsula Manila, overwhelmed the hotel security guards, held a news briefing and locked the premises down.

The hotel lobby quickly turned chaotic as dozens of uniformed soldiers with red armbands tied the glass doors with ropes. Hotel guests, many of them foreigners, were eventually allowed to leave. Many made their way to the Makati Shangri-La Hotel across the street. Among them were Maria-Stella Magtayo and Rian Montano, whose wedding had been set to start at the Peninsula that day, Reuters reported. They had their ceremony and reception the same day at the Shangri-La instead.

Asked if he was angry at the rebel soldiers, the bridegroom told Reuters, "I have to fix so many things, I have no time to be mad."

Coup attempts and mutinies are not unusual in the Philippines, which has seen more than a dozen of them since the ouster of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.