Fierce firefight at rebel Philippine hotel

Fierce firefights broke out inside a five-star hotel in the Philippines capital on Thursday as government forces entered to arrest a group of military rebels, an Agence France-Presse (AFP) reporter on the scene said.

An armoured troop vehicle rammed repeatedly into the main door of the hotel and roared into the lobby amid a hail of gunfire in events that were being beamed live on television around the world.

Government forces armed with automatic weapons poured into the building from behind the vehicle.

Upstairs, a group of journalists cowered for cover as sounds of shooting echoed through the corridors of the Peninsula Hotel.

The Philippine army on Thursday had stormed the Manila hotel where a small group of rebel troops, demanding the resignation of embattled President Gloria Arroyo, were holed up, an AFP reporter said.

People hunkered down inside the luxury hotel in the country’s main financial district of Makati in the heart of the capital were stung by tear gas that was released into the hotel, the reporter said. Shots could also be heard.

The dramatic events came after a military deadline passed for the renegade soldiers, believed to be about 30 in number, to end their rebellion and surrender.

Earlier the rebels broke down a door of the Peninsula Hotel, overwhelmed security guards and read out a statement against Arroyo with a full list of their demands.

Government troops then quickly surrounded the hotel in the Makati financial district — the same location of a failed 2003 coup allegedly led by many of the same rebel soldiers who seized the Peninsula.

The renegades urged Arroyo to resign and called on the military, a crucial force in this vast South-east Asian island nation with the power to make and break its leaders, to turn against her.

”We are joining our people in calling for a change in leadership,” said Army Brigadier General Danilo Lim, according to AFP reporters inside the hotel.

”We call on the military to withdraw support for Mrs Arroyo in order to end her unconstitutional and illegal occupation of the presidency,” he said.

The surprise events appeared to have been well orchestrated.

A detailed website immediately appeared on the internet, announcing Lim and Senator Antonio Trillanes as the rebel leaders and calling on the Filipino people to unite against Arroyo.

”As soldiers, we do not seek political power for ourselves,” Lim says in a declaration on the site, Sundalo is a Tagalog word for soldier.

The declaration says the country is facing ”a crisis of extreme proportions” and that Arroyo is a ”bogus president”.

”The economy, the rule of law and the moral order lie in ruins,” it says.

”Pursuant therefore to our constitutional duty as ‘protector of the people and the state,’ we have today [Thursday] withdrawn our support from Mrs Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in order to end her unconstitutional and illegal occupation of the presidency.”

There have been at least seven coup attempts in the Philippines since 1986 as the armed forces have maintained a central role in the nation’s political life since the ouster of dictator Ferdinand Marcos that year.

But Arroyo has been under particular pressure since a tape recording emerged of her allegedly conniving with an election commission official to help orchestrate her 2004 re-election.

She admitted it was a mistake to have called the official while the vote count had not yet been finished, but denied any wrongdoing.

Since then she has fought off impeachment attempts — while being regularly accused of having improperly won the election — as well as actual and alleged coups.

The renegade soldiers stormed the hotel on Thursday after walking out of a Manila court hearing where they were on trial for the 2003 coup attempt. That uprising failed when the armed forces declined to join the rebel soldiers.

Thursday’s dramatic events came just a month after Arroyo gave her predecessor and nemesis, popular ex-film star Joseph Estrada, a presidential pardon on charges of corruption.

The government said the pardon was granted after the 70-year-old Estrada agreed not to pursue any elective office.

He has always insisted his 2001 ouster from the presidential palace was a coup organised by the military, the powerful Catholic church and the country’s political elites. — AFP



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