The Philippine National Police (PNP) dismissed yesterday claims made by the Abu Sayyaf that it was responsible for the blast that started a fire which gutted the SuperFerry 14 last Feb. 27.
Director Robert Delfin, PNP Directorate for Intelligence chief, said their investigation showed that the man named by the bandit group as its "suicide bomber" -- Arnulfo Alvarado, listed as "Passenger 51" in the ferry's manifest -- had long been killed in a battle with the military in Mindanao.
"We have verified information from one of the Abu Sayyaf members now under custody that the name they claimed as the one aboard the SuperFerry 14 has been dead since 2000," Delfin said.
Bandit leader Khaddafi Janjalani reportedly named Alvarado as the one who detonated a bomb in the blue section or tourist class area of the ship.
Authorities said their initial investigation showed that the explosion took place in the vicinity of bunk 51, the occupant of which was later identified as Alvarado.
Based on the ship's manifest, Alvarado was listed as a 33-year-old passenger bound for Cagayan de Oro City. He was among those confirmed missing and whom no relative had inquired about.
Delfin, however, ruled out the Abu Sayyaf's claim and supported the initial findings of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) that the fire could have been sparked by a gas leak in the ferry's tourist class area.
"If it was a terror attack, there could have been bombs placed in other areas of the ship to create major damage that would endanger the lives of all the passengers and crew, and possibly sink the entire ship," he said.
Delfin added that the PNP will still wait for the final results of the probe now being conducted by the Special Board of Marine Inquiry.
Abu Sayyaf in Manila?
PNP chief Director General Hermogenes Ebdane Jr., for his part, downplayed reports that Abu Sayyaf bandits are in Metro Manila to conduct terror activities.
"Those are just insinuations. We set up a very good monitoring program in Metro Manila and we can say there's nothing to worry about in Metro Manila," he said, adding that the PNP has not received any information that members of the terror group are now in the metropolis.
Ebdane's statements contradicted those made by National Capital Region Police Office chief Director Ricardo de Leon, who was quoted as saying the NCRPO received intelligence reports indicating several bandits are in Manila and plan to spring free their members and leaders currently detained in Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig.
"I have not received such reports. I have to call Director De Leon insofar as we are concerned, we have to confirm before it comes out," Ebdane said.
De Leon had said police forces in Metro Manila increased their level of alertness last Sunday amid reports that the bandits are planning to attack key establishments in the metropolis. He also ordered additional checkpoints and deployed more policemen in the field.
De Leon also directed the transfer of Abu Sayyaf members detained at the NCRPO office in Bicutan to more secure detention cells and had the cells' padlocks replaced.
"Whether or not the reports are confirmed, it is much better to be ready for any possible incidents that might occur," he said.
Delfin said the PNP recently verified that top bandit leader Abu Solaiman returned to Mindanao after staying in Metro Manila some two weeks ago. He did not rule out the possibility that Abu Sayyaf members may go to Metro Manila to lie low because of the intensified operations against them in Mindanao.
In a related development, the PNP has formed a task force whose primary duty is to guard the country's seaports and airports and prevent the repeat of the SuperFerry 14 tragedy that left 29 people dead and some 90 people missing last month.
Delfin said the task force will augment another group from the DOTC that will also handle the security of all forms of transport systems in the Philippines.
DOTC Secretary Leandro Mendoza earlier formed "Task Force: Seaport" to intensify police visibility in key airports, seaports, and land transportation systems in the country, he added.
Delfin noted that the PNP is just one of the key agencies tapped to implement the intensified security measures in all ports of entry and exit in the country, following an order from President Arroyo last week.
"There is an order from Malacañang to address these issues as an offshoot of the SuperFerry 14 incident. The government does not want a repeat of the incident so a task force was formed," he said, adding that the task force started operating last week.
The PNP Maritime Group will be the lead police unit to assist the DOTC in ensuring the safety of sea travelers and others using mass land and air transport.
Intelligence operatives from the PNP and the Armed Forces will be deployed on a need-to-know basis, depending on the assessment of threats at air and seaports, a police official said.
Delfin said the newly formed PNP task force is different from the one handling security at the airports, although the Aviation Security Group is under the PNP's jurisdiction as well.