MANILA, Feb 22 (Reuters) The Philippine army has questioned at least 14 lieutenants and sergeants linked to a plot to unseat President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a general said today, adding he was confident no coup attempt would ever succeed.
Lieutenant-General Hermogenes Esperon, head of the army, said authorities had identified about 16 junior officers who were planning to carry out a coup. Two of them are absent without leave.
But he said the army has convinced most of the officers to abandon the plot and has disciplined a few uncooperative junior officers.
''I am confident that we have a solid armed forces,'' Esperon told reporters. ''Any coup attempt would not succeed because we have a solid army.'' The plot, named ''Oplan Hackle'', was meant to create a military junta and involved the mass release of officers facing trial for leading a failed uprising in July 2003.
Citing intelligence reports, Esperon said the revolt was planned for either last weekend when graduates of the Philippine Military Academy gathered for a reunion or on March 25 when Arroyo will address the graduating class of 2006.
''We are not saying that we have totally pre-empted 'Oplan Hackle','' he told a news conference at the main military camp in Manila.
''We continue to investigate to find out more details. But, we are ready to take action against any group that will destabilise this country, this government.'' Esperon also said authorities had identified the military units of about 200 soldiers that had been recruited to take part in the plot.
Rumours of unrest are common in the Philippines after a dozen coup attempts since the 1980s but talk of a plot has been growing as the 20th anniversary of the army-backed ''people power'' uprising against former dictator Ferdinand Marcos kicks off this week.
Today, thousands of people marched on the capital's main highway to commemorate the start of the popular revolt against Marcos in 1986, jamming streets and forcing workers returning home to walk for a few kilometres.
Some protestors complained that the police had blocked them from travelling to the capital to take part in the annual four-day celebration of ''people power.'' The marchers, including leftist activists and former allies of the president, demanded the ouster of Arroyo, accusing her of abandoning the ''spirit of the people power revolt'' which swept her into power in 2001.
A second army-backed popular uprising five years ago chased out Joseph Estrada from power, allowing Arroyo to rise from the vice-presidency.
Arroyo appealed to soldiers and police officers to thwart efforts by her political enemies to grab power.
''I call upon our soldiers not to cede a single town to those who dream of breaking up the country,'' she said after laying a wreath at the military's hero's cemetery in Manila, part of her noticeably low-key commemoration of Marcos' ouster.
REUTERS SHR KN1753