3RD LD: Estrada virtually quits, calls for snap vote in May.
(EDS: ADDING ESTRADA'S CALLING FOR SNAP PRESIDENTIAL VOTE IN MAY)
Philippine President Joseph Estrada virtually resigned Friday, calling on Congress to declare a snap presidential poll in May in which he promised he would not be a candidate.
In a televised address, the president told Filipinos he would ''immediately'' hand power to whoever is elected to succeed him.
It is unclear, however, whether the president's apparent capitulation to massive calls for him to quit now will end the protests against him that are filling streets throughout the Philippines.
Earlier Friday, a string of cabinet secretaries and the entire military hierarchy abandoned the president.
Military chief of staff Gen. Angelo Reyes, flanked by generals from practically all key military commands and Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado, told tens of thousands of demonstrators demanding Estrada's resignation that he and the 113,000-strong armed forces were withdrawing support from the president.
''We are withdrawing our support for (the Estrada) government,'' Reyes said to thundering cheers from anti-Estrada protesters at the EDSA Shrine. The shrine, the focal venue of protests, commemorates the 1986 ''people power'' revolt that drove the late Ferdinand Marcos into disgraced exile in Hawaii.
Reyes said the military is throwing its support to Estrada's ''constitutionally mandated successor,'' Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, leader of the united opposition.
Mercado told the cheering crowd his decision to leave Estrada was difficult because of friendship, but the interest of the country is paramount. ''The more difficult task of rebuilding has not even started.''
The military defection is seen as the deciding blow to Estrada's attempts to stay in office.
A domino-like chain of resignations by cabinet and key officials followed the military defection.
Finance Secretary Jose Pardo and all his undersecretaries, Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Felipe Medalla, Acting Trade Secretary Tomas Aquino, Public Works Secretary Gregorio Vigilar, Education Secretary Andrew Gonzales, Tourism Secretary Gemma Cruz-Araneta, Social Welfare Secretary Dulce Saguisag, and National Treasurer Leonor Briones all quit the government.
Earlier Friday, Estrada said he ordered his lawyers in his impeachment trial to drop opposition to the opening of crucial bank documents prosecutors say will prove the president amassed up to 3.3 billion pesos ($63 million) in unexplained wealth.
The Senate impeachment court Tuesday voted 11-10 to keep the documents sealed, sparking the angry street protests and the launching of many now call ''People Power Part 2.''
The vote prompted House of Representatives prosecutors and Senate President Aquilino Pimentel to resign and the impeachment trial to virtually collapse.
Even three of the 11 senators who made votes Tuesday to leave the evidence sealed urged Estrada on Friday to resign.
''I realize that the country is deeply divided because of this issue. To return to the process spelled out by the Constitution, I ordered my lawyers, defense counsel, to agree to the opening of the second envelope,'' Estrada said in the earlier televised announcement.
Tension rose earlier in the day when troops were seen moving from nearby provinces to Manila, but a military spokesman said the troop movements were authorized.
''These movements have been authorized...to respond to a situation that may arise, '' Brig. Gen. Generoso Senga said. ''But I categorically deny there is military intervention.''
Tens of thousands of anti-Estrada protesters continue to flock to EDSA, the metropolitan Manila shrine dedicated to the memory of the 1986 people's power revolt that drove Marcos into disgraced exile in Hawaii. The rallies that began late Tuesday have grown bigger everyday.
In Manila's Makati financial district, anti- and pro-Estrada rallyists clashed, throwing stones and plastic bottles after trading jeers.
Estrada was impeached by the House of Representatives on Nov. 13 on charges of bribery, graft and corruption, betrayal of public trust and culpable violation of the constitution.
The impeachment followed allegations by a former drinking and gambling buddy of the president that Estrada pocketed up to $11 million in kickbacks from illegal gambling and tobacco taxes.