President Benigno Aquino warned on Sunday that officials were bracing for a possible Islamist militant attack in the capital on the eve of a religious procession to be joined by millions of barefoot devotees.
The Black Nazarene, a life-size wooden statue of Jesus Christ carved in Mexico and brought to the Philippines in the 17th century, is removed from the Quiapo church on January 9 each year.
Believed to have healing powers in the predominantly Roman Catholic country, it is paraded through the narrow streets of Manila's old city from dawn to midnight.
Over the past few months, we have been appraised of intentions to create disruption in the national capital region, during the feast of the Black Nazarene, Aquino told reporters, saying the government had considered cancelling the procession.
Lately, we have been getting some information that leads us to believe there is a heightened risk...the possibility prompts us to warn you of the risk in attending the procession.
The president made no mention of any group, but said militants had been spotted in the capital. Some extremists associated with it were in jail, he said, and had operated from the southern island of Mindanao -- clear references to Islamist militants of the Abu Sayyaf group.
I ask you not to bring the following to the procession: cellphones, weapons, fireworks. Anyone who is caught bringing or using fireworks will be apprehended, he said.
Since the early 1990s, the government has been fighting al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants, blamed for bomb attacks, beheadings and kidnap-for-ransom in the southern Philippines. The government refuses to negotiate with Abu Sayyaf.
Authorities have since the late 1990s been holding peace talks with Muslem separatists of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to end decades of conflict. But little progress has been made.
The president's warning was the first of its kind of a plot linked to the Black Nazarene festival, which is expected to draw up to nine million devotees, most barefoot and wearing maroon shirts bearing an image of Christ.
Ricardo Valencia, a priest at Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, said clergy had received no information from the government on terrorist threats.
It's all systems go, he told reporters, while preparing for a mass at a park from where the procession starts on Monday.
(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Ron Popeski)