Lax security offers little comfort to jittery guests

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 January, 2007, 12:00am

Delegates gather with a nervous eye on a wave of bombings across Mindanao

The bomb-sniffing dog was asleep, the X-ray bag scanner broken and relaxed guards were eagerly waving visitors through without a second glance.

That was the scene at the Cebu hotel hosting foreign diplomats for the rescheduled Asean leaders' meetings, hours before three bombs were unleashed 470km to the south across Mindanao on Wednesday night, killing six people and injuring 26.

The bombs have rattled the hosts and arriving officials and envoys as they prepare for the 2nd East Asia Summit on Monday, which will see the 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meet their counterparts from China, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Live terrorist threats and international travel warnings led to the postponement of the Cebu meetings in December, officially aborted due to a passing typhoon.

Now fresh doubts are being cast on security and intelligence arrangements, supposedly strengthened during the past month amid ongoing warnings against travel to Cebu from the US, Britain, Canada and Australia.

Philippines officials, led by Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo, were espousing a defiant tone last night, insisting repeatedly that 'the show must go on' and that Cebu was safe. As 16 regional foreign ministers are already in town for preparatory sessions, a second postponement is widely considered to be inconceivable.

Officially, regional ministers are voicing support for the Philippines' improved arrangements.

Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yong-Boon Yeo acknowledged ever-present concerns over terrorism but insisted 'we have full confidence in our host'.

But speaking privately, envoys and officials are describing a different situation.

'Security, and the glaring lack of it, is on everybody's lips,' said one veteran Asian diplomat. 'There are some big holes in some of the operations and most countries are now reviewing their own schedules and routines and urging even greater efforts from the hosts.'

While security is tightest at the summit venue, the Shangri-La Hotel, security analysts are warning of heightened concern over other so-called softer targets elsewhere on the island, such as shopping malls and nightclubs.

'In many places the security that is supposed to be in place is simply too lax,' another diplomat said. 'The equipment is in place but there is simply no proper enforcement. Bags aren't being checked properly and there seems to be far too many people milling about. In short, it is a mess.'

Confusing statements from top Philippines' officials are further adding to the worry.

Organising committee chief Marciano Paynor and Mr Romulo have insisted the attacks on the island of Mindanao, home to long-running Muslim separatist and terrorist movements, were not connected to the Cebu meetings.

But Reuters quoted the national police chief as saying the bombs were designed to threaten the meetings.

'They were trying to send a message,' Oscar Calderon said. 'They wanted to embarrass the government because of the meetings.'

Officially, summit organisers are saying that the police and the military have told them that the bombings mark retaliation against ongoing anti-terror crackdowns against the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah and the local Abu Sayyaf.

The shadowy Abu Sayyaf is considered the most dangerous terrorist organisation in the Philippines. The army recently announced the killing of a key Abu Sayyaf leader.