DAVAO -- Authorities have identified 170 private armies operating across the country and more than 500 cities and municipalities as areas of concern that will get added security attention during 2010 elections.

Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Victor Ibrado and Philippine National Police (PNP) Director for Integrated Police Operation for Eastern Mindanao Jaime Milla said 68 of the 170 private armies have already been validated and are mostly based in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (Armm).

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Milla, who spoke in place of PNP Director General Jesus Verzosa, said that out of the 68 validated private armies, 25 are in Armm. The number of private armies in the autonomous region, however, can be more than double of that number.

"As what the Director General Verzosa said earlier, the PNP is also validating the rest of the 102 private armies, of which 77 are in the Armm," Milla said in an interview at the 38th Bishop-Ulama Conference, which tackled the issues on private armies, loose firearms, and the elections.

Verzosa said earlier that 558 of the country's 1,634 cities and municipalities have been identified as areas of concern and will get added attention from security forces ahead of the national and local polls, which include a vote for president.

"We in fact will be watching for massive buying or transfer of illegal firearms in those areas before the elections," Verzosa said. "We will infuse additional men and logistics in those areas to conduct more checkpoints, search for illegal weapons and target wanted persons."

Verzosa said 118 of the hotspots are within Armm where Muslim rebels, militants, and various armed groups operate.

Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Jose Melo asked the police and military to put extra effort into gathering evidence against political warlords who maintain their own private armies so that they can be charged and disqualified from the vote.

The private armies were thrust into the spotlight in November when 57 people in an election convoy, including 30 journalists, were massacred, allegedly by members of a rival clan.

The carnage sparked international outrage, prompting President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to briefly impose martial law to crack down on the clan and its army. She also ordered the disbandment of all private armies.

Ibrado said that in some cases, the private armies were stronger than the police force in the area, so the military will support the police in the campaign to dismantle them.

Following the Comelec resolution for a gun ban during election period, Ibrado said they expect the number of private armies to become bigger.

"We have certain data identifying who these certain armed groups are. We also have data what firearms they possess," Ibrado said.

Under the gun ban, both the police and the military will arrest and investigate all persons in civilian attire carrying firearms during the election season.

Meanwhile, Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said Malacañang is no longer surprised with the report of armed groups operating the country as this has been reported to the President during the National Security Council (NSC) Cabinet cluster.

"This is not new information in so far as we are concerned. We have been aware of this already. In the previous meeting of the NSC, and precisely these reports na nag uudyok sa ating Pangulo to seriously address this issue," he said.

He added that the Zenarosa Commission was specifically created to hasten the dismantling of private armies and was among the recommendations of the military and police which stressed the need for an "institutionalized and multi-sectoral body" to assist them in the campaign.

The Commission, created through Administrative Order 275, is headed by former Court of Appeals justice Monina Arevalo-Zenarosa and comprised of commissioners mediaman Herman Basbano, retired Brigadier General Jaime Echevarria; retired police Deputy Director Virtus Gil; Dante Jimenez of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption; Mahmod Mala Adilao representing the Bishop Ulama Conference; and Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos. (JCV of Sun.Star Davao/JMR/Sunnex)