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Philippines on high alert amid Estrada protests
MANILA, Philippines (Reuters) -- The Philippines put thousands of troops on high alert on Monday to quash any violent protests on the eve of a Senate hearing on whether to push ahead with the impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada or dismiss the case.
Estrada has denied charges of taking hefty payoffs from illegal gambling syndicates and vowed to clear his name in his trial expected to start on December 7.
Presidential national security adviser Alexander Aguirre said the security alert was prompted by communist rebel statements urging protesters to encircle the presidential palace by staging street sitdowns and setting up blockades of motor vehicles.
"We will impound the vehicles and file charges against owners who leave them on the road," Aguirre warned.
About 18,000 police, including reinforcements from nearby provinces, were on high alert around the capital Manila backed by several thousand soldiers.
"Communists will always try to take advantage of situations like this. That's why we are on alert," a military spokesman told Reuters.
Vice-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is leading a nationwide campaign to persuade Estrada to resign, on Sunday warned against the use of violence to force out Estrada.
"(It) would only play into the hands of the apologists of the administration who would not hesitate to discredit the protest movement by picturing (us) as people of violence," Arroyo said at a Manila prayer rally.
Call for non-violence
"My appeal is let us concentrate on active, non-violent struggle," she added.
Arroyo, a leader of the opposition, is next in line of succession if Estrada is ousted.
The Senate, which has converted itself into an impeachment court, is to hear on Tuesday a petition of Estrada's lawyers for the charges against him to be dismissed, citing technicalities.
Senate rejection of the petition would clear the way for the start early next month of the first impeachment trial of an Asian head of state.
Granting the petition would terminate the impeachment proceedings and allow Estrada to hang on to the presidency -- a prospect which political analysts say could trigger bigger protests against the embattled former movie actor.
Estrada has spurned calls for him to resign, saying opinion surveys show most Filipinos still support him.
If the impeachment pushes through, a two-thirds majority in the 22-member Senate, or 15 votes, are needed to convict and remove Estrada from office. He needs eight to win acquittal.
A series of defections has trimmed Estrada's once dominant, 14-member coalition in the Senate to five senators.
Ten senators are identified with the opposition while the rest, who comprise the "swing vote," have declared themselves independent.
The leftist group National Patriotic Alliance denied its followers planned to set up barricades around the palace.
"Isolated from the population and terrified by the spectre of bigger protests, Estrada and his cabal are now issuing hysterical statements," leftist leader Rafael Mariano said.
Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Philippine president calls for protests to end
President Joseph "Erap" Ejercito Estrada
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