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February, 21, 2017

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Fears of terrorism keep security tight at Manila Roman Catholic event

MANILA -- A massive crowd of mostly barefoot Filipino Roman Catholic devotees on Monday joined an annual procession of a centuries-old statue of Jesus Christ held under tight security due to fears of a possible attack following the killing of a suspected Islamic extremist leader.

The U.S. and British embassies asked their citizens to take precautions, and the police warned that local Muslim militants trying to align themselves with the Islamic State group may try to attack the procession of the wooden Black Nazarene with a cross along Manila's streets.

National police chief Ronald Dela Rosa says authorities have not monitored any specific threat but warned that followers of a Muslim extremist leader killed in a clash with police last week may retaliate by attacking the procession.

Mohammad Jaafar Maguid, leader of a small but violent Islamic group called Ansar Al Khilafah Philippines, died in a gunbattle Thursday in Sarangani province in the country's south. Three of his companions were captured.

On Saturday, a suspect linked to Maguid's group and a Filipina were killed when they allegedly tried to lob a grenade at policemen Saturday to evade arrest in Sarangani.

Maguid's group has been linked to a failed plot to bomb Rizal Park and the nearby U.S. Embassy in Manila in November.

Authorities have imposed a gun ban, prohibited drones and backpacks, and jammed cellphone signals along the vicinity of the procession, which was guarded by thousands of police and troops.

Despite the fears and heavy security, police said about 470,000 people gathered overnight to be able to touch the life-size statue at the Rizal Park then joined the start of the raucous procession at daybreak. It was not possible to confirm the crowd estimate.

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