MANILA -- Philippine authorities announced yesterday that they averted a "Madrid-level" attack on trains and shopping malls with the arrest of four men suspected of belonging to a Muslim extremist group with ties to Al Qaeda.
The men, thought to belong to the Abu Sayyaf group, were found with a stash of TNT, police said. They also allegedly trained with Southeast Asia's Jemaah Islamiyah terror network, also tied to Al Qaeda.
The suspects were being held without bail on charges of multiple murders for alleged involvement in a rash of crimes, including the beheading of a California man taken hostage three years ago as well as a bombing that killed a US soldier.
One suspect allegedly confessed he hid 8 pounds of explosives in a television set, then detonated it aboard a ferry a month ago, killing more than 100 people.
"We have prevented a Madrid-level attack in the metropolis," President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said, referring to the March 11 train bombings in Spain that killed 191 people.
Arroyo said the confession will be part of an investigation into the disaster. The government earlier discounted the Abu Sayyaf's claim of responsibility, but testimony before a maritime board of inquiry has dovetailed with the group's description of where it said it planted a bomb.
Arroyo faces a tough battle to be reelected when Filipinos go to the polls in May, and terrorism and crime are major issues. Speaking to reporters, she said she was advised by officials not to disclose the arrests prematurely but went ahead anyway.
While thwarting terror attacks could give Arroyo a boost in a tight race -- by contrast, the Madrid attacks influenced elections three days later that ousted the Spanish government -- it was a double-edged sword for a strong supporter of the US war against terror who continues to be plagued by terrorism.
The government has claimed the Abu Sayyaf is down to about 300 guerrillas from 1,000 four years ago, after Washington sent troops and instructors to help dislodge them from their Basilan island stronghold.
But the group clearly is still capable of attacks, and vowed more on Monday.
The Abu Sayyaf, which is on the US terror group list and has fed and armed itself by carrying out kidnappings for ransom, wants militants released from Philippine jails and terror suspects freed from US detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It also wants Christians to leave the mainly Muslim southern Philippines and foreign troops to leave the Arabian Peninsula.
The government on Tuesday doubled its reward for the capture of Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffy Janjalani to $175,000. That is in addition to the $5 million offered by Washington for information leading to the capture of five Abu Sayyaf leaders, including Janjalani.
Communist rebels also have stepped up attacks recently even while reopening peace negotiations with the government.
Police identified the arrested suspects as Alhamser Manatad Limbong, also known as Kosovo, who allegedly beheaded an American, Guillermo Sobero, in 2001 and who planted a bomb that killed a US soldier in the southern city of Zamboanga in October 2002; and Redendo Cain Dellosa, who allegedly confessed to the ferry bombing.
Limbong, identified by police as leader of a Manila terror cell, was found with 80 pounds of TNT, Arroyo said.
"I think we have stopped a major disaster," national security adviser Norberto Gonzales said. "They were planning something big."
Also arrested were Radzmar Sangkula Jul, sometimes called Michael Saavendra, a suspect in the 2000 kidnapping of 53 people on Basilan island; and Abdulrasid Lim, a kidnapping suspect.