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Estrada urges anti-government protests

Estrada supporters' vigil
Die-hard Estrada supporters occupy the same site where Arroyo was sworn in  

MANILA, Philippines -- Detained former Philippine president Joseph Estrada has called for nationwide protests against the government, as tens of thousands of followers demanded his return to the presidency.

"Let us continue this fight," the deposed president said in a taped message aired during an all-night protest Saturday by his followers at a religious shrine at EDSA, a main avenue in Metro Manila.

It is the same site where Estrada's opponents launched a "people power" revolt in January which ended his 31-month rule.

"Let us continue this protest at EDSA and in all corners of our country," Estrada added. "My conviction is strong that it will not be so long before the voice of ordinary people like you will achieve victory."

But Estrada cautioned his followers against violent acts.

"Let us continue to be calm. Let us never resort to violence."

The former movie actor has been in detention since Wednesday after a court ordered his arrest on a charge of economic plunder, an offense which carries the maximum penalty of death.

Estrada, who denies any wrongdoing, was moved from police quarters in Manila on Saturday to a nearby military hospital for a medical check-up before his planned transfer to a maximum security detention center south of the capital.

The Sandiganbayan special anti-graft court is expected to decide on Monday whether Estrada should be transferred -- a move opposed by his lawyers who say it would curtail his right to avail of immediate legal counsel.

Fluctuating crowd

The national police have raised security concerns for Estrada, whose followers had threatened last Friday to storm the police camp where he has been detained and bring him to the presidential palace.

Estrada son JV Ejercito
Estrada's son by one of his mistresses attends Saturday night's protest vigil  

Pro-Estrada demonstrators swelled to about 150,000 at one point on Thursday, the biggest display of support for him by his die-hard supporters.

Religious sects whose leaders supported Estrada's presidential campaign in 1998 are being suspected of provoking the demonstrations.

Police estimated the crowd at 65,000 in the early hours of Sunday. It shrank to a few thousand by mid-morning.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo said on Saturday she had been monitoring the EDSA protests and warned "misguided elements" that security forces were firmly behind her.

Arroyo apparently issued the warning to try to squelch local newspaper reports that Estrada loyalists in the military might launch a coup d'etat.

National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said that "the opposition is behind the coup rumors" to create a picture of instability and lack of government control ahead of May 14 legislative elections.

Reuters contributed to this report.



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