Indonesia and the Philippines were on alert for Islamic militant attacks aimed to disrupt Christian celebrations of Easter while foreigners were warned over their safety, according to reports released Friday.
In both countries, police said they were hunting for radicals connected to the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyahtwo leading Southeast Asian extremist outfits both believed to have ties to Al-Qaedaafter a foiled bomb plot, the Agence-France Presse (AFP) reported Friday.
According to AFP, some 15,000 police officers were deployed across Manila to guard vital installations while personnel were on guard at churches around the predominantly Catholic country after authorities uncovered a plot to bomb "soft targets" in the capital over Easter.
After the arrest of two extremists from both groups earlier this week and the seizure of 10 sacks of explosives, military sources in Manila warned that some 10 Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf militants were on the loose and could hit targets across the Philippines.
One of the two detained extremists, an alleged bomb maker identified as Rohmat told reporters after his arrest that the Abu Sayyaf were plotting major attacks in the southern cities of Davao and Cagayan de Oro in addition to Manila.
Citizens were advised against travel to central, southern and western Mindanao, and the Sulu archipelago where operations against separatist Muslim groups such as Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front were continuing.
Meanwhile in Indonesia, where Easter is also a holiday despite it being the world's largest Muslim-populated country, police said they were hunting up to 20 Indonesian graduates of a Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) training camp in the Philippines believed to have returned home to carry out attacks.
Jemaah Islamiyah, which means "Islamic Group" or "Islamic Community," were the orchestrators of the bombing Jakarta's Marriott hotel in August 2003 that killed 12 persons and injured more than 100. They were also responsible for last year's September bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta that killed 12 people, as well as the 2002 Bali bombings that killed at least 202 people, 88 of them Australians.
According to AFP, Indonesia's Security Affiars Minister Widodo Adi Sucipto said security and intelligence operations were being stepped up over Easter after a grenade attack this week in the Indonesia city of Ambon that left at least 14 people injured. Ambon, the capital of the eastern Maluku archipelago, was the site of some of the worst violence between Christian and Muslim groups that gripped the island chain between 2000 and 2002. Around 5,000 people died in sectarian clashes before a 2002 peace pact and sporadic incidents have continued to claim lives.
On Friday, the United States embassy in Jakarta issued a warning to its citizens in Indonesia that an ongoing risk of attacks in Indonesia was heightened over the Easter period.
Tokyo also warned Japanese visitors to Indonesia, urging them "to stay away from crowded places including shopping malls, discos, cafes and Western hotels and religious sites which could become targets of terrorism."
The latest call for security is similar to that made last year during the Christmas season when the discovery of nine homemade bombs on a bus in Indonesia's West Java province and information received from the U.S. and Australia on possible terrorist attacks prompted Indonesia to launch its biggest security operation in years.