Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered police to step up the search for Muslim extremists, after police arrested nine men they claim are linked to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, al-Qaida.
Police said they raided a suspected terrorist training camp Saturday in the remote jungle region of Tarlac province on the main island of Luzon. They said they seized weapons, grenades, communication equipment, and unspecified documents.
Regional police chief Brigadier General Reynaldo Berroya, who led the operation, said the raid on the camp followed the arrest of nine men, all Muslim converts, in nearby Pangasinan province a day earlier. The police chief said the raid was based on information received from one of the suspects during an interrogation.
General Berroya said the suspects belong to one of several underground cells linked to al-Qaida operating in Luzon. He said the terrorist training camp was located on 18-hectares belonging to an Islamic school.
But Philippine National Security Advisor, Roilo Golez, told VOA it was "premature" to say the suspects or camp are linked to al-Qaida. He said while "some people are theorizing" the suspects are "sleeper cells" of the terrorist network, he thought it unlikely.
Mr. Golez said it was inappropriate for police to speculate, and noted that the suspects were in a very remote town that is almost 100 percent Christian and does not appear to be a good sanctuary for al-Qaida. He said that a group of Muslims in that area would stand out as much as an American would.
About 90 percent of the Philippine population is Christian, with Muslims making up a tiny minority.
One of the arrested suspects, who was not identified, told Manila's ANC Television that none of the arrested men is a terrorist or had links to al-Qaida or any other terrorist group.
Police chief Brigadier General Berroya said police were hunting for more suspects and hoped to make more arrests soon. He said the arrested men were waiting to receive their share of the ransom money that the Muslim separatist group, the Abu Sayyaf, expects to collect from an American missionary couple they have been holding for ransom.
The Abu Sayyaf, which Washington has linked to al-Qaida, has been holding the couple and a Philippine nurse for 11 months on the southern island of Basilan. More than 3,000 U.S. troops are in the southern Philippines to train local soldiers in anti-terrorism operations.