Troops go into high alert for papal visit

The country’s security forces have been placed on high alert several hours before Pope Francis arrives today for a five-day visit.

The military would be strictly implementing a no-fly zone beginning today (Friday), even as the police has mobilized its intelligence forces and tracker teams to strengthen its security for the Catholic leader and his entourage and the expected huge crowd awaiting the Pope’s arrival.

The military said it would use its ground and air assets to “shoot down” any aircraft or other flying objects such as drones violating the pre-declared no-fly zone areas which may pose danger to the security and safety not only to Pope Francis but to the people.

Ready for Sunday. This aerial shot shows the Quirino Grandstand,
where Pope Francis will be celebrating mass on Sunday. Danny Pata
“We do not want that (shooting) drones) to happen but that is part of the defense system,” Philippine Air Force spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Enrico Canaya said Thursaday.

The PAF, in coordination with the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) have declared as no-fly zones the areas where the Pople is expected to hold public appearances and hold masses in Metro Manila and in Palo and Tacloban cities in Leyte.

In Metro Manila, declared as no-fly zones are the areas in and around the Quirino grandstand, the Mall of Asia and the University of Sto. Tomas, places where the Pope are scheduled to conduct masses.

The Pope’s flying routes from Manila to Leyte have also been declared as no-fly zones.

“We’ll provide air cover that’s why we are informing the public now that we will strictly enforce no fly zone on aircrafts and drones. As much asmpossible we do not want to use force,” Canaya said.

Approaching aircrafts will be forewarned and encroaching aircrafts in the no fly zone will be shot, Canaya added.

“Make no mistake because there are variety of approaches that we can do. We have gunships and armed aircraft and even surface to air guns. These things we do not want to use as much as possible, “ Canaya said.

The PNP, on the other hand, said it has created task units (Tus) from ten major police offices that would be mobilized in various parts of the country to detect, investigate and thwart attempts by terror groups and criminal gangs out to sow violence during the Pope’s religious activities.

PNP-Criminal Investigation and Detection Group director Benjam Magalong,  said the main objective of the TUs is to ensure “zero untoward incident” during the Pope’s visit, as outlned by PNP Officer-In-Charge Deputy Director Gen. Leonardo Espina.

Among the units tasked to fulfill that mandate are the heds of the Intelligence, Operations, Investigation, Legal, Administrative, Logistics offices of the PNP.

Magalong, who was tasked to oversee the Tus, said the task units are composed of 77 investigation personnel, with 88 personnel and 17 investigation teams.

“The CIDG, as part of its mandated task, shall provide wide scale coverage during the Pope’s state visit and Apostolic journey, in support to the Presidential Security Group (PSG), the lead agency handling the safety of the Pontiff,” Magalong said.

At least thirty eight CIDG agents and investigators were assigned to Tacloban and Leyte to investigate cases and incidents which may disrupt and affect the Pope’s visit in the Leyte. The CIDG agents will work alongside the PNP Special Operation Units (SOU) which had been mobilized ahead of the Pope’s arrival.

Magalong said the CIDG will complement the operations by other law enforcement agencies tasked to secure the Pope, and will include deployment of undercover intelligence agents from the Armed Forces and other PNP units.

The PNP said the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and intelligence forces from the Vatican had also sent their personnel ahead of the Pope’s visit as part of the overall security preparations.

Meanwhile, President Benigno Aquino III personally inspected three areas where the motorcade of Pope Francis will pass by in Metro Manila when he arrives today.

Accompanied by Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, Aquino began the inspection at 1 a.m. Wednesday, making the rounds at the Villamor Airbase, Apostolic Nunciature, LRT-Quirino Station, and Orosa street where the main entrance for devotees who will attend the mass at Luneta on Sunday is located.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Aquino noticed that a boom crane in Torre de Manila was facing Luneta and ordered that it be turned to the opposite side.

The President also noted that there was no security at the STI building near the Papal Nuncio residence and asked for policemen to be deployed there.

“The President has been on top of the situation. The President is hands-on, and when we say hands-on, the President has met very, very regularly with all the agencies concerned,” Lacierda said.

“Those minute observations - you could see how the President monitors and is very mindful of the surroundings,” he added.

The President on Monday said that while there is no direct threat to the safety of the Holy Father, the government is not taking chances and is “touching base with allies” such as Interpol and other member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations “to identify any threat whatsoever coming from any direction.”

In particular, he said Interpol has a watchlist of all individuals, not just Filipinos, who may have gone to Syria and Iraq to train with the terrorist network ISIS.

“There are thousands who are waiting for the convoy of the Holy Father, and the millions who will participate in the mass at Luneta. Crowd surge in an excited bid to get nearer to the Pope might trigger chaos,” Aquino said.

“As for direct threat, there is none. But we need to remember the sheer number of people who will attend - some might want to shake his hand, touch his frock, or even ambition to have a selfie with the Pope.”

“There are those generic threats, and the Pope has also made statements on conflicts across the globe that might be seen as a challenge by those perpetrators sowing terror,” he added.

He said as much as 50,000 soldiers and police, or 20 percent of all government forces, have been deployed to secure the Pope.

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