The death toll in two explosions that hit a Roman Catholic cathedral in Jolo, Sulu on Sunday reached at least 20, with 81 others reported injured, police said.
As of 1:10 p.m., Police Regional Office 9, recorded 5 soldiers and 15 civilians killed and 14 soldiers, 2 police officers and 65 civilians injured in the twin blasts, which happened about a minute apart while Mass was being celebrated at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Seven of the casualties were transported via helicopter to nearby Zamboanga City.
Police corrected an earlier death count, which was higher due to double counting, according to a report by the Associated Press.
Two blasts just a minute apart
Witnesses said the first blast was inside the cathedral, sending sent churchgoers, some of them wounded, to stampede out of the main door.
Army soldiers and police officers posted outside were rushing in when the second bomb went off about one minute later near the main entrance, causing more deaths and injuries.
The military was checking a report that the second explosive device might have been attached to a parked motorcycle.
The first explosion scattered the wooden pews inside the main hall and blasted window glass panels, and the second bomb hurled human remains and debris across a town square fronting the cathedral, witnesses said.
Troops on heightened alert
Cellphone signals were cut off in the first hours after the attack.
The witnesses who spoke to The Associated Press refused to give their names or were busy at the scene of the blasts.
Troops in armored carriers sealed off the main road leading to the church, while vehicles transported the dead and wounded to the town hospital.
“I have directed our troops to heighten their alert level, secure all places of worships and public places at once, and initiate pro-active security measures to thwart hostile plans,” said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in a statement.
“We will pursue to the ends of the earth the ruthless perpetrators behind this dastardly crime until every killer is brought to justice and put behind bars. The law will give them no mercy,” Malacañan Palace said in Manila. “The enemies of the state boldly challenged the government’s capability to secure the safety of citizens in that region. The [Armed Forces of the Philippines] will rise to the challenge and crush these godless criminals.”
Nearly a week after BOL plebiscite
Jolo island has long been troubled by the presence of Abu Sayyaf militants, who are blacklisted by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist organization because of years of bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings.
A Catholic bishop, Benjamin de Jesus, was gunned down by suspected militants outside the cathedral in 1997.
No one has immediately claimed responsibility for the latest attack.
It came nearly a week after minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation endorsed in the first of two plebiscites the proposed Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which would create a new autonomous region to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Western countries welcome pact
Those who approved of the proposed the law hope it will end nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion that has left 150,000 people dead.
Although most of the Muslim areas approved the autonomy deal, voters in Sulu province, where Jolo is located, rejected it.
Sulu province is home to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a rival rebel faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MNLF is opposed to BOL, as are smaller militant cells that are not part of any peace process.
Western governments have welcomed the autonomy pact.
They worry that small numbers of Islamic State-linked militants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia could forge an alliance with Filipino insurgents and turn Mindanao into a breeding ground for extremists.
“This bomb attack was done in a place of peace and worship, and it comes at a time when we are preparing for another stage of the peace process in Mindanao,” said ARMM Gov. Mujiv Hataman.
“Human lives are irreplaceable,” he added, calling on Jolo residents to cooperate with authorities to find the perpetrators of this “atrocity.”
Various threat groups still suspect
Security officials were looking “at different threat groups and they still can’t say if this has something to do with the just-concluded plebiscite,” Director General Oscar Albayalde, chief of the Philippine National Polic, told ABS-CBN TV network.
Secretary Hermogenes Esperon Jr., the national security adviser, said that the new autonomous region, to be called the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), “signifies the end of the war for secession.”
“It stands for peace in Mindanao,” Esperon, a former AFP chief, said.
Aside from the small but brutal Abu Sayyaf Group, other militant groups in Sulu include a small band of young jihadis aligned with the Islamic State group, which has also carried out assaults, including ransom kidnappings and beheadings.
Abu Sayyaf militants are still holding at least five hostages — a Dutch national, two Malaysians, an Indonesian and a Filipino — in their jungle bases mostly near Sulu’s Patikul town, not far from Jolo.
Government troops have pressed on sporadic offensives to crush the militants, including those in Jolo, a poverty-wracked island of more than 700,000 people. A few thousand Catholics live mostly in the capital of Jolo.
There have been speculations that the bombings may be a diversionary move by Muslim militants after troops recently carried out an offensive that killed many IS-linked extremists in an encampment in the hinterlands of Lanao del Sur province, also in the south.
The area is near Marawi, a Muslim city that was besieged for five months by hundreds of IS-aligned militants, including foreign fighters, in 2017. Troops quelled the insurrection, which left more 1,100 mostly militants dead and the heartland of the mosque-studded city in ruins.
On May 23, 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the whole of Mindanao to deal with the Marawi siege, his worst security crisis, which lasted until the military retook the city five months later, on Oct. 23.
His martial law declaration has been extended to allow troops to finish off radical Muslim groups and other insurgents but bombings and other attacks have continued.