MANILA, Philippines – Two bombs broke through a Roman Catholic cathedral on a Philippine South Island where Muslim fighters are active. At a Sunday Mass at least 20 people were killed and 81 others injured.
The first bomb exploded in or near the Jolo Cathedral in the provincial capital, followed by a second out-of-area explosion while government forces responded to the attack, security officials said. The explosions blew up the entrance to the cathedral and tore through the main hall, tearing the pews and toppling other doors.
The police said at least 20 people died and 81 were wounded. The casualties included 15 civilians and five troops. Among the wounded were 14 soldiers, two policemen and 65 civilians.
Photos showed rubble and corpses lying on a busy street in front of the Cathedral of the Mother of God of Mount Carmel, which was hit by bombs in the past. Troops in armored vehicles sealed the main road that led to the church as vehicles took the dead and wounded to the hospital. Some victims were evacuated by air to the nearby city of Zamboanga.
"I have instructed our troops to raise their alert levels, secure all venues and public places at once, and take proactive security measures to prevent hostile plans." Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement.
"We will prosecute the ruthless perpetrators of this deceitful crime to the end of the world until every murderer is brought to justice and placed behind bars, and the law will not mercy on them." the office of President Rodrigo Duterte said in Manila.
It states that "the enemies of the state have courageously challenged the government's ability to safeguard the security of the citizens in that region, and the (Armed Forces of the Philippines) will face up to this challenge and destroy these godless criminals."
The island of Jolo has long been troubled by the presence of Abu Sayyaf fighters, blacklisted by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist organization due to years of bombing, kidnapping and beheading. A Catholic bishop, Benjamin de Jesus, was gunned down in 1997 in front of the Cathedral by suspected fighters.
No one immediately took responsibility for the last attack.
It came almost a week after Muslim minorities in the predominantly Roman Catholic Church The nation supported a new autonomous region in the south of the Philippines, hoping to end nearly five decades of a separatist uprising, killing 150,000 people. Although most Muslim territories have agreed to the autonomy deal, voters in the province of Sulu, where Jolo is located, refused. In the province there is a rival rebel faction that opposes the deal, as well as smaller militant cells that are not part of a peace process.
Western governments have welcomed the Autonomy Pact. They fear that a small number of Islamist-linked Islamists could form an alliance with the Philippine insurgents from the Middle East and Southeast Asia and turn the South into a breeding ground for extremists.
"This bombing took place in a peaceful place and worship, and there comes a time when we are preparing for another phase of the peace process in Mindanao," said Governor Mujiv Hataman of the autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao. "A person's life is irreplaceable," he added, calling on the people of Jolo to work with the authorities to find the perpetrators of this "atrocity".
Security officials investigated "various threat groups" and still can not say if this is the case, something to do with the plebiscite just completed, "said National Police Chief Albayalde to television broadcaster ABS-CBN.
Apart from the small one but brutal group Abu Sayyaf join other militant groups in Sulu of a small group of young jihadis with the Islamic State group that has also carried out attacks, including abductions and beheadings of ransom.
The fighters of Abu Sayyaf still hold at least five hostages – one Dutchman, two Malaysians, one Indonesian and one Filipino – in their jungle bases. Mostly near Sulus town of Patikul, not far from Jolo.
Government forces have been taking sporadic offensive to destroy the militants, including those in Jolo, a poverty-stricken island of more than 700,000 Residents. A few thousand Catholics live mostly in the capital of Jolo.
There is speculation that the bombings may well be a diversionary action by Muslim fighters, following recent raids by a number of ISIS extremists killed in a Camp camp in the hinterland of Lanao del Sur province. also in the south. The area is near Marawi, a Muslim city besieged by hundreds of IS members, including foreign fighters, for five months in 2017. The troops repressed the uprising, leaving more than 1,100 mostly militant militias and mosque-occupied heartland dying city in ruins.