Manila: The Philippines lifted a terrorist alert in the capital on Tuesday after millions of Roman Catholic devotees ended a 22-hour parade of a Christ statue that authorities feared was a tempting target for Muslim extremists.
Authorities had deployed a massive police cordon after the President warned over the weekend that terrorists might target the raucous annual procession. After the parade ended, they declared the event a success and lifted the security alert in Manila.
The government did not have specific intelligence on a terrorist plot. Still, about 15,000 policemen, backed by hundreds of Army troops, secured the three-mile (five-kilometer) procession route for the charred wooden Black Nazarene statue from seaside Rizal Park to a popular church in Manila's congested Quiapo district.
Air Force helicopters stood by and cellphone service was blocked in procession areas to prevent its use to trigger bombs. Despite the President's warning, huge crowds of devotees wearing maroon shirts surged near the statue, believed to have healing powers.
Devotees waving handkerchiefs and towels let out shouts of "Viva!" as the statue was finally brought inside the church at the end of the grueling procession.
The Philippine Red Cross said more than 500 devotees were treated for minor injuries, exhaustion or dehydration.
President Benigno Aquino III announced at a hastily called news conference on Sunday that several terrorists had been reported in Manila with plans to disrupt the procession, but that the threat was not high enough to cancel the event and that police would work to keep it safe.
Aquino's warning sparked one of the most elaborate security deployments for an event in the capital in recent years.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the threat, involving possible bombings by two groups of Muslim militants from the country's volatile south, prompted police to raid several suspected terrorist hideouts in the Manila area, but without any results.
There were suspicions that attackers might come from two radical Muslim groups, including the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, which is on a US list of terrorist organisations for deadly bombings, kidnappings and beheadings.
"I agree with the assessment of the Manila police district that it was a success, but a bit too long," chairman Francis Tolentino of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority said on Tuesday.
The procession was delayed for hours because the wheels of the carriage carrying the statue broke.
Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim said the government's warning may have helped kept the event peaceful.
The security alert in Manila was lifted after the procession ended, Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo said.
Police said at least three million mostly barefoot devotees took part in the event.
The wooden statue of Christ, crowned with thorns and bearing a cross, is believed to have been brought from Mexico to Manila in 1606 by Spanish missionaries. The ship that carried it caught fire, but the charred statue survived and was named the Black Nazarene.
Some believe the statue's survival of fires and earthquakes through the centuries and intense bombings during World War II is a testament to its powers.
The Philippines is Asia's largest predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
First Published: Tuesday, January 10, 2012, 12:30