At least 18 people were killed on Sunday when two bombs hit a Catholic church on a southern Philippine island that is a stronghold of Islamist militants, the military said, days after voters backed Muslim self-rule in the region.
A powerful first blast shattered pews and left bodies strewn inside thecathedral on Muslim-majority Jolo as mass was being celebrated, an armyspokesman said.
Just moments later a second explosion outside killed troops who wererushing to help the wounded in the smoking and heavily damaged church.
It is one of the deadliest bomb attacks to strike the insurgency-plaguedsouthern Philippines in years and came amid the hope spurred by voters’overwhelming approval of a plan to give Muslims more control over their own affairs, reports BSS.
Manila swiftly vowed to hunt down the attackers, but no group has claimedthe bombing.
“We will pursue to the ends of the earth the ruthless perpetrators behindthis dastardly crime,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said in astatement. “The law will give them no mercy.”
Five soldiers, a member of the coast guard and 12 civilians were among thedead while 83 other people were wounded, said regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Gerry Besana.
The regional police chief Graciano Mijares put the toll slightly higher at20 dead, lower than a figure of 27 he gave earlier.
The second bomb was left in the utility box of a motorcycle in the parkingarea outside the church, a military report said.
Authorities said the notorious Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group could be behind the blasts.
“When you talk about terrorism in Sulu, the primary suspect is always the(Abu Sayyaf) but we are not discounting the possibility that there are otherperpetrators,” Besana told reporters.
The remote island of Jolo is a base of the Abu Sayyaf, which is blamed fordeadly bombings, including an attack on a ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 thatclaimed 116 lives in the country’s deadliest terror assault.
The Abu Sayyaf is a loose network of militants formed in the 1990s withseed money from Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network, and has earned millions of dollars from banditry and kidnappings-for-ransom, often targeting foreigners.
It is among armed networks based in the strife-torn region of Mindanao,some of whose members have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
Jolo also lies in the Bangsamoro Muslim-majority autonomous region, which local voters overwhelmingly backed last week.
The approval, which sealed a peace deal with the nation’s largest Muslimrebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front, raised hopes for peace afterdecades of fighting killed some 150,000.
Sulu province — which includes Jolo — voted against the creation of thenew region, with its governor filing a petition in the Supreme Court toprevent its formation.
Despite Sulu’s vote, the province is legally required to join Bangsamorobecause voters from across the current autonomous region voted in favour of it on the whole.
Sunday’s bombing follows a New Year’s eve blast in the southern Philippinecity of Cotabato killed two people and wounded 35 others.
The timing of Sunday’s bombs raised questions on whether the attack wasmeant to derail the peace process.
Mujiv Hataman, a regional leader in the Philippines south, said the blastshighlighted the urgency of implementing the peace law.
“I hope the (law) is implemented well so it could be a solution to stopthe spread of terrorism,” Hataman told reporters.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said “extremist criminals”plotted the bombings.
“We will not allow them to spoil the preference of the people for peace,”Esperon said. “Peace must prevail over war.”