Bus owners brace against bomb threats

Viah Lumogdang, spokesperson of the 13-member Southern Mindanao Bus Operators Association, said they have coordinated with the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police in immediately taking novel security measures in reaction to the lingering threats of extortionists.

Among those killed in the recent bus bombing were the driver, conductor and a soldier who tried to move out of a Davao City-bound Weena bus a bag left behind by a male passenger which they feared contained a bomb.

The homemade bomb exploded just as the bag was brought out of the bus, killing instantly the driver and the soldier and injuring seriously the bus conductor who later died.

Suspected extortionists whom the police did not want to name as yet reportedly demanded millions from the bus company.

The company has reportedly received death threats since May.

Lumogdang said the case of Weena Bus Company served as an eye-opener for the other operators who were encouraged to reveal they, too, received threats and have given in to extortion.

SMBOA explained stricter measures are being taken and that they are now fighting extortion for a number of reasons.

Lumogdang said the transport industry is going through hard times due to rising fuel prices, unfair competition with passenger vans, and steady fare. Despite this, she said, the extort demands have increased amid their decreasing capacity to give.

She said the association will write to all local government units in areas where their buses ply to secure their terminals. She said the group will require them to provide security guards and a public announcement system, adding they have the right to do so because they pay terminal fees to these LGUs.

SMBOA presented to MindaNews a copy of a draft set of guidelines on dealing with bomb and extortion threats which came out after the group’s preliminary meetings with Task Force Davao.

She said they will soon furnish the military's Eastern Mindanao Command a copy of the final guidelines.

The draft guidelines include requiring the drivers to attend bomb awareness and security seminars conducted by the AFP and the PNP, and requiring the bus stewards or conductors to check the baggage of passengers who ride outside terminals.

Lumogdang said that from now on they will put up more reminders on the threats of explosives and other safety measures on printed materials and public announcements in and out of vehicles.

Earlier this week, SMBOA announced that passengers may only take buses in terminals.

But Lumogdang admitted many passengers take the bus along the road for convenience.

She added no matter how taxing it will become to both passengers and the bus company, they have to frisk for safety.

She also revealed how the extortionists operate including the scheme of sending extort money via ATM banking.

SMBOA revealed that some extortionists started only by asking for rice, then P500 for every unit until the demand went higher. Extort letters were sent via drivers and conductors and the goods were either dropped off in an agreed location or collected by the perpetrators.

The group identified the Cotabato and Tacurong routes as among the highly critical for their members.

Lumogdang said common threats are limited to burning or bombing the bus.

She said it is the first time the industry has approached the authorities for close coordination on the problem which has been going on for some time.

She said the problem was not addressed because majority of the operators kept silent about their own experiences, leaving Weena Bus the only firm that stood up against extortion.  (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)