MANILA // Millions of Roman Catholic devotees paraded with a black Christ statue through the Philippine capital under a massive police cordon after the president warned that militants might target the raucous annual procession.
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The government did not have specific intelligence on a militant plot. Still, about 15,000 policemen, backed by hundreds of army troops, secured the five-kilometre procession route for the charred wooden Black Nazarene statue from the seaside Rizal Park to a popular church in Manila's congested Quiapo district.
Air force helicopters stood by and cell phone service was blocked in procession areas to prevent their use to trigger bombs. Despite the president's warning, huge crowds of devotees wearing maroon shirts turned out to be near the statue - believed to have healing powers.
"It's a choice between faith and fear," said Rodolfo Uy, 45, a polio victim whose 12-year-old son pushed him on a wheelchair to see the Black Nazarene. "I got nervous last night when I heard the news but my devotion was stronger."
Mr Uy said he prayed for metal braces so he could walk and work again for his children.
President Benigno Aquino III announced in a hastily called news conference Sunday that several militants had been reported in the capital with plans to disrupt the procession, but that the threat was not high enough to cancel the procession and that police would work to keep it safe.
Defence 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.
Mr Gazmin defended Mr Aquino's decision to announce the threat himself on the eve of the procession despite the absence of a specific threat, saying it underscored the president's concern for public safety and ratcheted massive security preparations.
Mr Aquino's warning sparked one of the most elaborate security deployments for an event in the capital in recent years, but Mr Gazmin dismissed criticisms of a security overkill.
"It's OK if it can be described as overreacting," Mr Gazmin said. "But at least we won't be sorry."
The event got under way with a morning Mass by Manila's Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle at Rizal Park that was attended by about three million mostly barefoot devotees. The crowd was expected to swell up to nine million later in the day, police said.
After the Mass, where prayers were offered for victims of recent deadly floods, organisers brought the life-size Black Nazarene statue down from a stage to a carriage for a procession that was expected to last well into the night.
Aside from hundreds of army troops, the military said it deployed 19 teams of explosive experts, 33 units with bomb-sniffing dogs, crowd-control squads and ambulance vans. It put a 500-member rapid reaction force and three helicopters on standby.
There were suspicions that the would-be attackers may have 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.
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.
The Philippines is Asia's largest predominantly Roman Catholic nation.