Philippine Defence Minister confirms reports of coup to oust President Aquino

MANILA - Philippines Defence Minister Voltaire Gazmin has confirmed reports that a cabal of well-connected businessmen and politicians has been planning to mount a coup to oust President Benigno Aquino.

In a Senate hearing on Wednesday over a botched police raid to capture Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Hir, Mr Gazmin said: "We indeed received those reports, and we are still in the process of verifying and confirming all these reports."

He stressed, however, that Mr Aquino's government was "very confident the military will not be involved in the coup d'etat".

Mr Gazmin, a former army general, was answering questions from Senator Miriam Santiago, who said "social media is rife with gossip that there should be a coup d'etat".

"I have intelligence, as of yesterday, that leaders... who are familiar with the public had a recent meeting because they wanted to discuss how to stage a coup d'etat, who should be installed as president and even their contributors were there," said Mrs Santiago.

At a news conference later, the senator said the plan to oust Mr Aquino was "a subject of a summit meeting among the leaders of certain rogue groups who want to eliminate the President to make way for somebody else".

She declined to name the men behind the plot, except that the "most prominent financier is the richest man of all".

"I dont want to make a big deal out of it until after the (Defence Ministry) has already finished their investigation or their clarification," she said.

Mr Aquino has been under tremendous pressure following public outrage over the deaths of 44 police commandos during a disastrous operation to capture Zulkifli Hir, known as Marwan, and his Filipino apprentice Basit Usman at their hideout in the remote town of Mamasapano in restive Mindanao island.

Marwan was killed, according to DNA tests done by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. Usman escaped.

As the commandos retreated, however, one of their formations ran into hundreds of fighters from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, who were said to be protecting Marwan and Usman.

In the ensuing clashes, 44 troopers from the Special Action Force were killed.

Mr Aquino is facing his biggest political crisis over his refusal to take direct responsibility for the Mamasapano incident.

He has said that he knew about the raid, but he placed the blame for the policemen's death on their ground commander, Chief Superintendent Getulio Napenas, who he said did not follow his instructions to coordinate with the military.

The President was heavily criticised earlier for failing to properly honour the slain policemen when he did not show up to receive their remains at a military base in Manila and instead attended a car plant's inauguration.

He is also facing questions as to why he allowed his long-time friend, Director-Geneeal Alan Purisima, play a central role in the police raid, even though he had been suspended earlier as National Police chief on graft charges.

At the Senate hearing on Wednesday, Mr Purisima finally admitted that he held himself "accountable" for the botched operation.

rdancel@sph.com.sg