A woman died of injuries from a bomb attack at a southern Philippine church, raising the toll to 22 dead, authorities said Friday while a provincial police chief confirmed that a female suicide bomber was suspected of blowing herself up.
The attack was one of the worst terrorist acts to strike the Philippine in years. It injured more than 100 people.
The latest fatality in the twin bombings that targeted the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Jolo Island during Sunday Mass service on Jan. 27 was identified as Thelma Villanueva, 68, officials said. She succumbed to her wounds at a hospital in southern Zamboanga city, where some among the scores of other victims were taken, regional army spokesman Col. Gerry Besana said.
“Her remains will be brought by her family to Basilan,” Besana said, referring to another island near Zamboanga.
In Jolo on Friday, provincial police commander Senior Supt. Pablo Labra II said that a female suicide bomber had taken part in the attack. He based his information on eyewitness accounts and body parts found at the blast site.
A woman with a backpack was seen entering the church and sitting in a pew, and shortly afterwards, a powerful explosion occurred, Labra said, citing affidavits from 36 witnesses. The suspicious woman’s nationality had not yet been identified, the police official said.
“They said the woman was acting suspicious. Church goers knows each other. They noticed the woman because she was uneasy,” Labra, the police chief of Sulu province, said.
“The explosion inside indicates that there was this suicide bomber. She was sitting at the blast site and no one knows her. She could be the one, but we will finalize our investigation,” he added.
Citing forensic evidence gathered at the site, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he, too, was convinced that suicide bombers were to blame.
“The church was heavily guarded 24 hours daily since August when threats to bomb it surfaced. Those entering were screened. All bags and belongings were checked. The bombs could have been strapped in the body of the bomber, and escaped the attention of the soldiers doing the screening,” Lorenzana said.
He said body parts that were strewn all over the blast site did not belong to the dead or wounded accounted for to date. The second bomb exploded just outside the church in downtown Jolo, the capital of Sulu.
Since then, the military has tagged Abu Sayyaf Group, a militant organization previously blamed for the country’s bloodiest terrorist attacks during the past two decades, as being behind Sunday’s attack on the church.
Intelligence data indicated that the attack could be tied to a recent vote that ratified a Muslim autonomous region in the south. The people of Jolo had voted overwhelmingly to be excluded from the autonomous zone.
Initial reports had pointed to a well-orchestrated attack, carried out by militants using remotely detonated homemade bombs.
But President Rodrigo Duterte, citing intelligence briefs, said earlier this week that the blasts were the handiwork of “suicide bombers.” His statement threw the investigation into disarray, with security officials now divided as to which angle to pursue.
And, to complicate matters, a grenade attack killed two Muslim religious leaders at a mosque in Zamboanga on Wednesday. That same day, Lorenzana, the national defense chief, dismissed speculation about a link between the attacks at the church and mosque, saying they were “unlikely” connected.
The military, meanwhile on Friday, carried on with an air, artillery and ground assault against suspected Abu Sayyaf lairs in the jungles of Jolo that it launched in the aftermath of the church attack. There were no new reports of casualties.
In 2004, the Abu Sayyaf, or “Bearers of the Sword,” bombed a passenger ferry on Manila Bay, killing more than 100 people in one of the deadliest terrorist strikes in the Philippines.
A faction of the Abu Sayyaf headed by Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged leader of the Islamic State extremist group in Southeast Asia, took over southern Marawi city in May 2017 and led local militants, backed by an undetermined number of foreign fighters, in a five-month battle with government forces.
About 1,200 people, most of them militants, were killed. Hapilon was among them.
Ben Hajan and Joseph Jubelag contributed to this report form Zamboanga City and General Santos City, Philippines.