Froilan Gallardo and Joseph Jubelag
A joint army and police team intercepted two pickup trucks and arrested 19 people armed with automatic rifles and pistols in southern Pagadian city, Philippine authorities said Tuesday, amid a nationwide gun ban issued ahead of midterm elections next week.
According to the authorities, the Commission on Elections supervised the arrests and has named the entire Philippine south as an election “hot spot” where violence could occur on May 13. Next Monday, an estimated 61 million voters across the country are expected to choose 18,000 officials, including half of the 24-member Senate and all 297 members of the House of Representatives.
The arrests came after concerned citizens notified authorities about spotting the armed group on the outskirts of Pagadian, the capital of Zamboanga province. The 19 did not resist, but police said they could not determine if they were affiliated with a political group.
“The government troops immediately responded in the area and were able to flag down the two vehicles and immediately apprehended the personalities on board possessing firearms,” local army spokesman Capt. Clint Antipala said.
The soldiers and police seized five M16 rifles, as well as several different caliber pistols and ammunition, according to Antipala.
The military, meanwhile, has deployed more than 40,000 troops nationwide in preparation for the midterm polls. They will help assist about 160,000 national police force members guarding polling precincts, including critical areas in the south where warring political warlords are a concern, according to officials.
“They will be deployed in areas where extra security is needed like areas of conflict or insurgency,” said military spokesman Col. Noel Detoyato, adding that the election commission had tapped troops to transport poll materials.
As of April 30, the national police had recorded 22 incidents of election-related violence, with at least 10 people killed and 11 others wounded, Philippine National Police spokesman Col. Bernard Banac said. Since the electoral season started at the beginning of the year, more than 4,600 individuals had been arrested and about 4,068 guns confiscated, he said.
Police were particularly concerned about an estimated 37 “gun for hire” groups scattered across the country that could strike on election day, on top of rebel groups known to be operating in the south, according to Banac.
“As we look forward to the 2019 midterm elections, we assure the public that our focused police operations will be intensified,” he said Friday during a briefing with poll officials. He said this would entail “intensified checkpoint operations and other patrol” responses.
“We assure the public that the whole PNP will remain apolitical, neutral and impartial,” Banac said, adding that the together with the military, the police force was on “full high alert status” days ahead of the polls.
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