Updated at 11:55 a.m. ET on 2018-08-29
The death toll from a bomb explosion that hit this southern Philippine town has risen to two with dozens injured, officials said Wednesday, as authorities scrambled to hunt suspects in the region’s latest lethal attack.
Philippine soldiers and members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a former rebel group, were both sent along with intelligence teams to track down suspects behind the Tuesday night blast in Isulan as the town was holding festivities to mark its founding anniversary.
Another victim has died of injuries sustained in the explosion, raising the death toll to two, with at least 35 others wounded. A 7-year-old girl was among the dead. Two soldiers who were part of a team securing Isulan were among the injured, officials said.
The bombing was the second one to strike the south within the past month. The region has been under military rule since last year, when Islamic State-linked militants took over the city of Marawi for five months. Last month, a suicide bomb attack claimed by IS left 11 people dead in southern Basilan island.
In Manila, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said it was too early to name suspects in the latest bombing.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the bombing in Sultan Kudarat [province] last night,” Roque said. “Authorities are now investigating the incident and we vow to bring the perpetrators of this brazen attack to justice. We will apply the full force of the law.”
He said the military, under orders from President Rodrigo Duterte, had taken a lead in the investigation.
But, he conceded, “we don’t know who is behind this attack.”
“As of now, we would like to be in good faith to all our partners there in Mindanao, where the most important thing to let the system of justice work so the guilty are punished,” Roque said.
He said the government was currently looking at the possibility that the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) was involved in the blast. The BIFF is a splinter group of the MILF composed of several hundred hardline separatists.
It has pledged allegiance to IS, but did not send fighters to Marawi last year. Its fighters are scattered in other parts of Mindanao, where they have been blamed for attacks, mostly hit-and-run tactics against military targets.
In June last year, the BIFF seized a school in the town of Pigcawayan and held dozens of children and teachers hostage for half a day. Skirmishes with the military erupted, leading to the wounding of two pro-government militiamen. The gunmen later withdrew.
The military said the attack was a diversionary tactic to ease pressure off their IS comrades in Marawi, which is about 50 miles north of Pigcawayan.
Roque noted that BIFF had earlier criticized the MILF and the government’s recent passage of a law meant to widen a Muslim autonomous region in the south, making them a likely suspect.
“Let’s look at this, because from the very start the BIFF has rejected any peace talks between the government and the MILF,” he said.
However, SITE Intelligence, a U.S.-based website that monitors online communications among Muslim militant groups, reported that Islamic State’s East Asia Province had claimed responsibility for the bombing of “Filipino soldiers in the capital of Sultan Kudarat.” Isulan is the provincial capital.
Mohaqher Iqbal, chief negotiator of the MILF, told BenarNews that the attack bore the hallmarks of an IS attack.
“We condemn it. It is a handiwork of bloody-minded people and it serves no purpose,” Iqbal said. “Those who perpetrated the bombing were peace spoilers.”
He said an MILF team was helping the military search for the perpetrators, in accordance with the peace agreement.
Town Mayor Marites Pallasigue identified the latest fatality as Davy Shane Alayon, 7, who died while being treated at the hospital and Lenie Umbrod, 52.
“We have terminated the celebration of our 7th Hamungaya Festival and 61st foundation anniversary. The police and military have tightened the security,” Pallasigue said.
Nissa Alayon, mother of Davy Shane, said they were at a clothing shop just a few meters away before the bomb exploded. She carried her bloodied daughter to a safe area, but the girl later died in hospital.
National Police chief Oscar Albayalde placed all forces in Mindanao under a full alert status and cancelled all leaves.
The government is currently studying the possibility of extending military rule in the south beyond this year, provoking protests from rights groups and opposition politicians that it could be abused.
Vice President Leni Robredo, the de facto head of the opposition, strongly opposed the extension of martial law in Mindanao, saying it failed in preventing terror attacks in the southern region.
“We already have martial law in Mindanao but we saw over the past month it failed to prevent atrocities in the island. We have a bombing in Lamitan and now in Sultan Kudarat,” she said.
Mark Navales in Cotabato City, Dennis Jay Santos in Davao City and Froilan Gallardo in Cagayan de Oro contributed to this report.