U.S. says ‘grave’ consequences if Syria’s al Qaeda dominates Idlib province

A general view taken with a drone shows the Clock Tower of the rebel-held Idlib city, Syria June 8, 2017. Picture taken June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – The United States warned a takeover of rebel-held northwestern Idlib province by Syrian jihadists linked to a former al Qaeda affiliate would have grave consequences and make it difficult to dissuade Russia from renewing bombing that recently stopped.

In an online letter posted late on Wednesday, the top State Department official in charge of Syria policy, Michael Ratney, said the recent offensive by Hayat Tahrir al Sham, spearheaded by former al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front, had cemented its grip on the province and put “the future of northern Syria in big danger”.

“The north of Syria witnessed one of its biggest tragedies,” said Ratney who was behind secret talks in Amman with Moscow over the ceasefire in southwest Syria announced by U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in July. It was the first such U.S.-Russian effort under the Trump administration to end Syria’s civil war.

“In the event of the hegemony of Nusra Front on Idlib, it would be difficult for the United States to convince the international parties not to take the necessary military measures,” the top State Department diplomat said.

Mainly Islamist rebels swept through Idlib province in 2015, inflicting a string of defeats on the Syrian army until Russia stepped in to reverse the tide of the civil war in favour of President Bashar al Assad.

Idlib province, the only Syrian province that is entirely under rebel control, has been a major target of Russian and Syrian aerial strikes that caused hundreds of civilians casualties.

The agricultural region had a respite since a Russian-Turkish brokered accord reached last May approved four de-escalation zones across Syria, among them one in Idlib province.

Many locals fear the jihadists’ hold on Idlib will again make the province a target of relentless attacks by Russian and Syrian forces and turn it into another devastated Aleppo or Mosul.

More than two million people live in Idlib, which has become an overcrowded refuge for many of the displaced, including rebel fighters and their families.

“JOLANI AND HIS GANG”

“Everyone should know that Jolani and his gang are the ones who bear responsibility for the grave consequences that will befall Idlib,” said Ratney, referring to former Nusra head Abu Mohammad al Jolani who effectively leads Hayat Tahrir al Sham.

In less than three days Jolani’s fighters overran their powerful rival, the more mainstream Ahrar al Sham group, seizing control of a strategic border strip with Turkey in some of the heaviest inter-rebel fighting since the start of the conflict.

An emboldened Hayat Tahrir al Sham has sought to allay fears it did not seek to dominate the whole province but suspicions run high among many in the region about their ultimate goals to monopolise power.

The jihadists have linked up with Western-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) groups who continue to maintain a foothold in several towns in the province. The south of the region is still in the hands of rival groups, including Ahrar al Sham but the jihadists have been trying to extend their control.

Ratney told rebel groups, who have been forced to work with the jihadists out of expediency or for self preservation, to steer away from the group before it was “too late.”

He said Washington would consider any organisation in Idlib province that was a front for the militants a part of al Qaeda’s network.

The expanding influence of the former al Qaeda has triggered civilian protests across towns in the province with some calling for the group to leave towns and not interfere in how they are run.

Nusra and its leaders would remain a target of Washington even if they adopted new names in an attempt to deny Washington and other powers a pretext to attack them, the U.S. official said.

The jihadist sweep across Idlib province has raised concerns that the closure of some crossing points on the border with Turkey could choke off the flow of aid and essential goods.

Washington remained committed to delivering aid in channels that avoided them falling into the hands of the hardline jihadists, Ratney said echoing similar concerns by NGO’s and aid bodies after their recent gains.

The main border crossing of Bab al Hawa with Turkey which the al Qaeda fighters threatened to take over has however been re-opened with a resumption of aid and goods to the province that has relieved many people.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Andrew Hay)

Islamic State seeking alliance with al Qaeda, Iraqi vice president says

A member of the Iraqi rapid response forces walks past a wall painted with the black flag commonly used by Islamic State militants, at a hospital damaged by clashes during a battle between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants in the Wahda district of eastern Mosul, Iraq,

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Islamic State is talking to al Qaeda about a possible alliance as Iraqi troops close in on IS fighters in Mosul, Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi said in an interview on Monday.

Allawi said he got the information on Monday from Iraqi and regional contacts knowledgeable about Iraq.

“The discussion has started now,” Allawi said. “There are discussions and dialogue between messengers representing Baghdadi and representing Zawahiri,” referring to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda.

Islamic State split from al Qaeda in 2014 and the two groups have since waged an acrimonious battle for recruits, funding and the mantle of global jihad. Zawahiri has publicly criticized Islamic State for its brutal methods, which have included beheadings, drownings and immolation.

It is unclear how exactly the two group may work together, Allawi said.

Islamic State blazed across large swathes of northern Iraq in 2014, leaving the Iraqi central government reeling. Baghdadi declared a caliphate over the territory the group controlled from the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul the same year, which also became a point of contention with al Qaeda.

Last October, Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite volunteer fighters, commonly referred to as the Popular Mobilization Units teamed up with an international coalition, including the United States, to drive Islamic State from of Mosul and the areas surrounding the city.

The group has been pushed out of the half of Mosul that lies east of the Tigris River, but Iraqi soldiers and their allies are now bogged down in tough fighting in the narrow streets of the Old City of Mosul, west of the river, according to Iraqi security officials .

Islamic State has used suicide bombers, snipers and armed drones to defend the territory under their control. The group has also repeatedly targeted civilians or used them as human shields during the fighting, according to Iraqi and American security officials.

The militant group has lost ground in Mosul but still controls the towns of Qaim, Hawija and Tal Afar in Iraq as well as Raqqa, their de facto capital in Syria.

Even if Islamic State loses its territory in Iraq, Allawi said, it will not simply go away.

“I can’t see ISIS disappearing into thin air,” Allawi said, referring to the group by a commonly used acronym. “They will remain covertly in sleeping cells, spreading their venom all over the world.”

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh, editing by Larry King)

New York man gets 13 years prison for trying to join al Qaeda

New York high school senior trying to join al Qaeda

By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A New York man was sentenced on Tuesday to 13 years in prison for trying to join the Islamic militant group al Qaeda when he was a high school senior.

Justin Kaliebe, now 22, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley in Central Islip, New York, after pleading guilty in February 2013 to having attempted to provide material support to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Kaliebe had been arrested a month earlier at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where prosecutors said he planned to board a flight to Muscat, Oman, as part of his plot to eventually travel to Yemen.

The defendant was also sentenced to 20 years of supervised release.

“I am disappointed and feel that a lesser sentence was warranted,” Kaliebe’s lawyer Anthony LaPinta said in an email.

“Justin is a harmless young man who had many psychological, medical and personal issues that contributed to his criminal conduct,” LaPinta continued. “Justin will make the best of his time in prison. I am certain that he will emerge as a rehabilitated, productive and respected member of society.”

Federal authorities have estimated that 80 percent of Americans linked to activities supporting militant Islamic movements have radicalized themselves with information from the internet.

Prosecutors said Kaliebe, a resident of Babylon, New York, began his plot in 2011, and told an undercover law enforcement operative the following year that he was “doing the J word,” or violent “jihad.”

In June 2012, Kaliebe was recorded as saying that upon arriving in Yemen, he expected to fight “those who are fighting against the Sharia of Allah,” be it the Yemeni army or U.S. forces, prosecutors said.

Kaliebe received support from Marcos Alonso Zea, another Long Island resident who according to prosecutors attempted to fly to Yemen in January 2012 but was intercepted by British customs officials and returned to the United States.

Zea, 28, was arrested in October 2013 and sentenced in April 2015 to 25 years in prison, after pleading guilty to attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Tom Brown)

U.S. authorities warn of al Qaeda threat to election

The rising sun lights One World Trade as it stands over the Manhattan borough of New York.

By David Ingram

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Federal officials have warned authorities in New York City, Texas and Virginia about an unspecific threat of attacks by al Qaeda militants around Election Day, putting local law enforcement on alert days before the vote, officials said on Friday.

A U.S. government source in Washington said some federal agencies sent bulletins to local and state officials flagging the information but that the threat was relatively low level.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates airports, tunnels and bridges around New York City, continues high levels of patrol it has had in place, spokesman Steve Coleman said.

Coleman declined to offer details on the warning, but the New York City Police Department said the threat report lacked specifics and was still being assessed.

“We are aware of the information,” the department said in a statement, adding that it was working with intelligence agencies and the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Although some of the attention of U.S. authorities has shifted to Islamic State-inspired attacks, the al Qaeda network has shown resilience more than 15 years after it was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Last month, the United States carried out strikes in Afghanistan targeting two of al Qaeda’s senior leaders there,  and al Qaeda’s Yemen branch has posed a risk to merchant ships in waterways nearby.

U.S. intelligence agencies still view al Qaeda and its affiliates as a top counter terrorism priority.

The White House said it was aware of the reported al Qaeda threats and mindful of increased risk of attacks during events such as Election Day.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in a statement his office was monitoring the situation and urged Texans to remain vigilant. In Virginia, Brian Coy, a spokesman for Governor Terry McAuliffe, said: “We are doing everything we can to keep Virginians safe, and we’re confident they are going to be able to vote safely on Election Day.”

The task force issued a notice identifying the three states as possible targets of an al Qaeda plot, a New York law enforcement official said on condition of anonymity. The official said the type of threat was common but authorities were giving it more attention because of Tuesday’s election.

CBS News first reported the threat of attacks, which it said were possible on Monday.

Authorities were assessing whether there was a plot and whether the states named were real targets or misdirection. “Another possibility is that this is just an attempt to inspire someone here to mount an attack,” the official said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security did not confirm the reports or comment on details.

In Washington, a Homeland Security official said authorities remained concerned that so-called “homegrown” militants could be inspired to attack within the United States.

“The public should expect to continue to observe an increased law enforcement and security presence across communities in public places,” the official told Reuters.

The potential for violence related to the election has already darkened a rancorous presidential race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, on top of the threat of computer hacking and fears that Russia or other state actors could spread political misinformation online or tamper with voting.

While federal and state authorities are beefing up cyber defenses against electronic threats to voting systems, others are taking additional steps to guard against possible civil unrest or violence.

(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, John Walcott, Doina Chiacu, Ian Simpson and Roberta Rampton in Washington and Nate Raymond in New York; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)

U.S. warns about possible al Qaeda attacks in Virginia, Texas, NY

The rising sun lights One World Trade as it stands over the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S.,

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. intelligence officials have warned local authorities in New York, Texas and Virginia about possible attacks by al Qaeda on Monday, a day before the U.S. presidential election, CBS News reported on Friday, citing unnamed sources.

No specific locations were mentioned, but U.S. intelligence officials alerted joint terrorism task forces about the possible threat, CBS reported.

The FBI did not comment specifically on the report. “The counterterrorism and homeland security communities remain vigilant and well-postured to defend against attacks here in the United States,” it said in a statement on Friday.

The bureau was working closely with federal, state and local law enforcement to identify and disrupt any potential threats, it said.

Reuters could not immediately verify the report, and officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The potential for violent clashes is darkening an already rancorous presidential race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, on top of the threat of computer hacking and fears that Russia or other state actors could spread political misinformation online or tamper with voting.

And while federal and state authorities are beefing up cyber defenses against potential electronic attacks on voting systems ahead of Election Day, others are taking additional steps to guard against possible civil unrest or violence.

Local authorities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin and Florida told Reuters they were not boosting election-related law enforcement personnel or resources above 2012 levels.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu in Washington and Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Gunmen attack American university in Kabul, students flee

A wounded man lies inside an ambulance following an attack at American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, Afghanistan

By Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) – Suspected militants stormed the Kabul campus of the American University of Afghanistan on Wednesday with some students jumping from second floor windows to escape the gunfire and explosions, witnesses and officials said.

Foreign staff and dozens of pupils were trapped in the compound hours after the attack began at about 6:30 p.m. (10 a.m. ET).

News of casualties was sketchy, but the head of hospitals in the Afghan capital said at least one person had been killed and 14 students wounded in the assault.

“Many students jumped from the second floor, some broke their legs and some hurt their head trying to escape,” Abdullah Fahimi, a student who escaped, told Reuters. He injured his ankle making the leap.

“We were in the class when we heard a loud explosion followed by gunfire. It was very close. Some students were crying, others were screaming.”

A senior interior ministry official said that elite Afghan forces had surrounded the university and witnesses at the scene said special forces had entered the walled compound where gunfire that had lasted for more than an hour had since stopped.

“There are two gunmen hiding inside the building and a clearing operation is ongoing to eliminate them,” interior ministry spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, said.

CAR BOMB

Ahmad Mukhtar, another student who fled the scene, said the gunmen had got into the university buildings despite security measures including three or four armed guards and watchtowers.

He added that he believed the attack had started at the main gate into the compound.

“I finished my class and was about to leave when I heard a few gunshots and a huge explosion, followed by more gunfire,” he said. “I ran toward the emergency exit with other students, climbed the wall and jumped outside.”

Kabul police chief, Abdul Rahman Rahimi, told Reuters that the attack began with a car bomb and several attackers had entered the campus.

Islamist militant groups, mainly the Afghan Taliban and a local offshoot of Islamic State, have claimed a string of recent atrocities aimed at destabilizing the country and toppling the Western-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani.

No one has claimed the university attack.

It is the second time this month that the university or its staff have been targeted.

Two teachers, an American and an Australian, remain missing after being abducted at gunpoint from a road nearby on Aug. 7.

Taliban insurgents control large swathes of Afghanistan, and local armed forces are struggling to contain them, especially in the provinces of Helmand to the south and Kunduz to the north.

NATO ended its combat mission in December 2014, but thousands of troops remain to train and assist Afghan forces, while several thousand more U.S. soldiers are engaged in a separate mission focusing on al Qaeda and Islamic State.

(Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Attempt at U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria suffers major setbacks

john kerry and sergei lavrov

By Tom Miles and John Walcott

GENEVA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to elicit Russian military cooperation in the fight against Islamic State in Syria suffered two potentially crippling blows on Thursday.

First, the Syrian army said it had cut off all supply routes into the eastern part of the city of Aleppo – Syria’s most important opposition stronghold – and President Bashar al-Assad’s government asked residents to leave the city.

That move, U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity said on Thursday, appeared to be an effort to pre-empt a U.S. demand that Russia and Syria reopen a major road into the divided northern city before talks could begin on creating a joint intelligence center to coordinate air attacks against Islamic State.

Then al Qaeda’s Syrian branch announced on Thursday it was terminating its relationship with the global network created by Osama bin Laden and changing its name to remove what it called a pretext by the United States and other countries to attack Syrians.

Although one U.S. official called it “a change in name only,” the move complicates the American proposal to limit the Russians and Syrians to targeting only Nusra and IS, not other rebel groups supported by Washington and its allies in the coalition against Islamic State.

“By disavowing its ties to al Qaeda – which, incidentally, it did with al Qaeda’s blessing – Nusra has made it harder to isolate it from more moderate groups, some of whose members may join it now because it’s more powerful than some of the groups they belong to now,” said the official.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Washington has been clear about its concerns over the announcement of the humanitarian corridor and that its view of the Nusra Front had not changed despite its name change.

“But we also remain committed to the proposals reached by the United States and Russia to better enforce the cessation of hostilities in Syria and provide the space needed for a resumption of political talks. If fully implemented in good faith, they can achieve a measure of success that has eluded us thus far,” Kirby told Reuters.

“As the secretary made clear, however, we are pragmatic about these efforts, and we will look to Russia to meet its commitments as we will meet ours. That will be the primary, determining factor of success here,” he added.

FALTERING PROPOSAL

The twin U.S. goals in Syria have been ending the violence that already has claimed some 400,000 lives, according to United Nations estimates, and seeking a political process to replace Assad, whom President Barack Obama has said “must go.”

But while Washington and Moscow have both expressed hope they can find a way to cooperate against IS, Kerry’s proposal was already in trouble due to the competing objectives of the Cold War-era foes as well as resistance from U.S. military and intelligence officials.

U.S. officials questioned Russian and Syrian claims that their aim in evacuating civilians from Aleppo was to clear the way for humanitarian assistance to reach the besieged city, where 200,000-300,000 civilians remain with only two to three weeks of food on hand.

“Why would you evacuate a city that you wanted to send humanitarian aid to?” asked one official. “At first glance, that would appear to be a unilateral effort by Moscow and Assad to pre-empt Kerry’s demand for ending the siege of Aleppo before starting negotiations on the larger issues. If the proposal isn’t dead, it seems to be pretty badly wounded.”

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura wants a deal as soon as possible so he can restart peace talks within a month and aid flows can resume.

(Reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva and John Walcott in Washington, additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; editing by G Crosse)

Bin Laden’s son threatens revenge for father’s assassination

Newspaper headlines and clippings are posted on a wall inside a staff office at the White House in Washington May 2, 2011, the morning after U.S. President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden.

DUBAI (Reuters) – The son of slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has threatened revenge against the United States for assassinating his father, according to an audio message posted online.

Hamza bin Laden promised to continue the global militant group’s fight against the United States and its allies in the 21-minute speech entitled “We Are All Osama,” according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

“We will continue striking you and targeting you in your country and abroad in response to your oppression of the people of Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and the rest of the Muslim lands that did not survive your oppression,” Hamza said.

“As for the revenge by the Islamic nation for Sheikh Osama, may Allah have mercy on him, it is not revenge for Osama the person but it is revenge for those who defended Islam.”

Osama bin Laden was killed at his Pakistani hideout by U.S. commandos in 2011 in a major blow to the militant group which carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Documents recovered from bin Laden’s compound and published by the United States last year alleged that his aides tried to reunite the militant leader with Hamza, who had been held under house arrest in Iran.

Hamza, now in his mid-twenties, was at his father’s side in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks and spent time with him in Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion pushed much of al Qaeda’s senior leadership there, according to the Brookings Institution.

Introduced by the organization’s new chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in an audio message last year, Hamza provides a younger voice for the group whose aging leaders have struggled to inspire militants around the world galvanized by Islamic State.

“Hamza provides a new face for al Qaeda, one that directly connects to the group’s founder. He is an articulate and dangerous enemy,” according to Bruce Riedel of Brookings.

(Reporting By Asma Alabed; Editing by Noah Browning and Janet Lawrence)

Al Queda warns of grave consequences if Boston marathon bomber executed

File photo of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in this handout photo presented as evidence by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston

CAIRO (Reuters) – Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri has warned the United States of the “gravest consequences” if Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or any other Muslim prisoner is executed.

Tsarnaev, named in a new online video message from Zawahri, was sentenced last year to death by lethal injection for the 2013 bomb attack, which killed three people and injured more than 260.

“If the U.S. administration kills our brother the hero Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or any Muslim, it … will bring America’s nationals the gravest consequences,” Zawahri said.

Zawahri, who became al Qaeda’s leader after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, urged Muslims to take captive as many Westerners as possible, especially those whose countries had joined the “Crusaders’ Campaign led by the United States”.

The veteran Egyptian-born Islamist, shown wearing white robes and sitting in front of green velvet drapes, said the Western captives could then be exchanged for Muslim prisoners.

Western powers “are criminals and they only understand the language of force”, he added.

The nearly hour-long video, which included images of Tsarnaev, gave no indication of the location of Zawahri, believed to be based close to the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Tsarnaev carried out the Boston bombings along with his older brother Tamerlan, who was killed in a confrontation with police soon after. No organization claimed responsibility.

Tsarnaev is being held at the “Supermax” high-security prison in Florence, Colorado, while his attorneys appeal his death sentence.

Legal wrangling over Tsarnaev’s fate could play out for years or even decades. Just three of the 74 people sentenced to death in the United States for federal crimes since 1998 have been executed.

(Reporting by Mostafa Hashem; Writing by Amina Ismail; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Phillippines confirms execution of Canadian by al Qaeda

Philippine President Aquino arrives at a session of the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

By Allison Martell and Manuel Mogato

TORONTO/MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines confirmed on Tuesday the execution of a Canadian who had been held hostage by the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Islamist militant group on a remote southern island with three other people since September 2015.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in Toronto on Monday that it appeared the second execution of a Canadian hostage by Abu Sayyaf in recent months had taken place.

That was later confirmed in Manila.

“We strongly condemn the brutal and senseless murder of Mr. Robert Hall, a Canadian national, after being held captive by the Abu Sayyaf group in Sulu for the past nine months,” outgoing Philippines President Benigno Aquino said in a statement.

A Philippines military spokesman said earlier a severed head had been found near a Catholic cathedral on a remote southern island late on Monday. No identification had been made yet.

Hall was taken captive by the militants with three others from an upscale resort on Samal island, hundreds of miles east of Jolo. Another Canadian who was held captive, former mining executive John Ridsdel, was executed by the group in April.

A Norwegian man and a Filipina are still being held.

Trudeau told reporters that “Canada holds the terrorist group who took Mr. Hall hostage fully responsible for this cold-blooded and senseless murder”.

He said Sunday’s attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and the killing of Hall “serve as devastating reminders for all of us, the vicious acts of hatred and violence cannot be tolerated in any form”.

Abu Sayyaf, based in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines, is known for kidnapping, beheadings and extortion.

Security is precarious in the southern Philippines despite a 2014 peace pact between the government and the largest Muslim rebel group that ended 45 years of conflict.

In Manila, President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s national security adviser said Duterte’s new government, which takes charge on June 30, would “take a stronger action against lawlessness in the south”.

“We cannot allow this situation to continue, this should end once and for all,” Duterte’s adviser Hermogenes Esperon told Reuters.

Abu Sayyaf had initially demanded one billion pesos ($21.7 million) each for the detainees, but it lowered the ransom to 300 million pesos each early this year.

Preliminary intelligence reports in the Philippines indicated Hall had been beheaded 10 minutes after a 3 p.m. deadline lapsed in the mountains outside Jolo’s Patikul town.

Philippine media had already quoted Abu Raami, a spokesman for Abu Sayyaf, confirming the execution.

(Reporting by Allison Martell in TORONTO and Manuel Mogato in MANILA; Editing by W Simon and Paul Tait)