Philippine military checking intel on Sri Lanka 'terrorists'; suspect claims false accusations citing family feud

A file photo of a security officer inspecting travellers at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Philippine security officials are investigating reports against two Sri Lankans who entered the country, even as one of them denied accusations against her. PHOTO: THE PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

MANILA - Philippine security officials said on Saturday (Aug 10) they were checking reports that at least two Sri Lankans had slipped into the country to train local militants on bomb-making, even as one of them claimed a family feud had led to false accusations against her.

Mr Rommel Banlaoi, head of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, told The Straits Times that one of the Sri Lankans, Ms Victoria Sophia Sto Domingo, had met with agents from the National Bureau of Investigation "to deny everything".

But Brigadier-General Edgard Arevalo, the military spokesman, said in a statement that security officials are still validating the information. Pending that, the case remains under investigation.

"The information immediately available are reports coming from media. We already have some information that we are checking with another agency," he said.

Mr Banlaoi said Ms Sto Domingo had met with government agents and issued an affidavit saying that she, her fiance Mark Kevin Samhoon and her mother Anarkalie Dulara Palliyaguruge were being framed by an estranged kin over a grudge.

She said he had told the Philippine Bureau of Immigration that the three of them had ties to the National Thowheed Jama'ath, the terrorist group accused of carrying out the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka in April that killed at least 250 people.

Acting on that tip, the bureau issued advisories to airport officials flagging Ms Sto Domingo and Mr Samhoon as "suicide bombers", and Ms Palliyaguruge as their "financier".

Ms Sto Domingo said in a separate e-mail to The Straits Times that the false accusations were "a form of harassment towards me, my mother and my fiance due to a family feud".

She said she has been estranged from the kin since 2002. "This is not the first time he has harassed or caused trouble in our lives using social media to bully me and my family," she added.

Ms Sto Domingo clarified that she went to the Philippines to give birth, and that Mr Samhoon, whose mother was said to be a Filipino maid in Dubai, is still in Sri Lanka and has never been to the Philippines.

She denied claims that she was involved in the suicide attack in January on a Roman Catholic cathedral in Sulu province which killed 23 people and wounded at least 100.

In her affidavit, a copy of which was obtained by The Straits Times, Ms Sto Domingo said she and Mr Samhoon are "born-again Christians", and her mother is Buddhist. "None of us have any connections with any terrorist group or terrorist activity," she added.

The online news site BenarNews, citing military sources, had reported that two Sri Lankans were with a faction of Filipino militants on the main Philippine island of Luzon, purportedly planning to attack churches.

Pro-Islamic State extremists from abroad had reportedly been sneaking into the Philippines to help militants mount attacks in densely populated cities far from their strongholds in the war-torn southern island of Mindanao.

President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman Salvador Panelo on Tuesday confirmed that security forces in Luzon were on heightened alert to thwart such attacks.

Mr Duterte himself voiced concerns this week over the influx of militants who fought with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the Philippines.

"I have ISIS, and this is what I am most afraid of," he said in a speech. "I am praying, really praying, kneeling before God, to spare us the kind of brutality and cruelty (ISIS brings) because it will really be bloody, bloody as it can be."

Mr Duterte said he was looking at recruiting thousands more to augment the military's special forces units.

"We are facing so many fronts. I need more soldiers," he added.

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