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Tanks replace shoppers

Manila, July 27 (Reuters): Renegade Philippine soldiers barricaded in an upmarket Manila shopping centre ended a 19-hour siege and returned to barracks today, facing court martial charges without resolving any of their grievances.

The disgruntled troops — who accused the government of corruption, colluding with rebels and preparing for martial law — removed explosive devices placed around a residential and office building attached to the mall.

Despite being heavily armed, they denied they were staging a coup. The standoff in the heart of the capital ended without a shot being fired.

The renegade soldiers eventually dropped demands for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to quit but continue to demand the resignations of defence secretary Angelo Reyes, the chief of national police and the head of military intelligence.

Arroyo said the crisis was over and 296 mutineers, including 70 junior officers, would face court martial proceedings.

“Civilians shown to be involved in any conspiracy will be prosecuted,” she said in a brief televised speech, alluding to the possible involvement of some opposition politicians.

“I assure the world that this event does not in any way injure our national security and political stability. The issues involved are domestic, operational or administrative. They do not involve fundamental or policy areas.”

But analysts warned share prices and the Philippine peso were likely to take a beating when financial markets open tomorrow. “This incident will certainly have a negative effect on our economy,” said trade secretary Manuel Roxas. “Even now, the business sector is reeling in a state of shock.”

Many of the renegades looked grim as they boarded trucks outside the 26-storey Oakwood building at the Glorietta shopping centre, which was encircled by armoured vehicles and hundreds of loyal troops. But some punched the air in defiance. Reporters saw anti-tank weapons, heavy-calibre machineguns and at least one shoulder-fired rocket and a box of plastic explosives being removed from the building.

Navy Lieutenant Antonio Trillanes, one of the mutiny leaders, said the soldiers had been “ready to die” but ended the siege to avoid needless bloodshed. Military officials said further rounds of talks would be held with the rebel soldiers but Trillanes was sceptical. “I am convinced that these reforms will not pass in my lifetime, especially on corruption,” he said.

Arroyo, who has the support of the military command, ordered a manhunt yesterday for up to 70 junior officers and deserters after days of rumours of a coup plot by a small group of soldiers angry over pay and the pace of internal reforms. “It was agreed they would end the siege and they will march back to barracks,” Colonel Danilo Lim, one of the government negotiators, told reporters.

Australian ambassador Ruth Pearce and other foreigners were trapped briefly in the building but were later allowed to leave.

The atmosphere around the shopping centre was calm, with many government troops relaxing or eating a dinner of rice and fish as the talks carried on to end the siege.

The US expressed its full backing for Arroyo, who has been one of Washington’s most fervent supporters in the war on terror. Her security forces have received US training as they battle a host of Muslim and communist guerrilla groups.

The 113,000-strong military has no official role in the democratic process but has traditionally had a major say in who holds power.

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