Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, chief of Western Mindanao Command, told reporters during the military’s traditional New Year's Call gathering Monday, “The entire AFP [armed forces] are on alert for the visit of the Pope in the country."
Although Pope Francis is only set to visit capital Manila and Leyte province, the area worst hit by 2013's Typhoon Yolanda, Guerrero warned that any indirect attack plots by the Abu Sayyaf group and its cohorts will dent the country’s security.
"Our troops there [Mindanao island] have been tracking possible terror plans in light of the pontiff's visit," he said, adding that no threats had been reported.
Guerrero said security forces have also intensified monitoring of the Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian militant organization also linked to al-Qaeda, and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that signed a recent peace deal with the Philippine government.
The southern island of Mindanao has been wracked by decades of insurgency, but the March 27 peace deal aims at bringing an end to the conflict and creating an autonomous Muslim area in the south.
Security officials had earlier announced that around 37,000 police and military troops, including reservists, would be deployed during Pope Francis’ visit.
Army chief of staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. said the military will deploy snipers and provide air cover for security.
The Philippines is the third most populous Catholic country in the world. Spanish missionaries introduced the religion in the early 16th century.
About 6 million people will attend the public events of Francis in the Philippines.
The presidential palace has declared three days of the Argentine pontiff's visit as special non-working holidays in Metro Manila.