Updated at 12:07 p.m. EST on 2019-09-07
A bomb explosion injured at least eight people at a marketplace in the southern Philippines on Saturday, authorities said, as ex-Muslim rebels in the region prepared to surrender their weapons and demobilize under a peace deal with Manila.
Authorities said they suspected that an insurgent faction opposed to the peace agreement and linked with the Islamic State extremist group may have carried out the bombing, which occurred shortly after 7 a.m. in Isulan, a town in Sultan Kudarat province.
The bomb struck hours before President Rodrigo Duterte and other government officials gathered to witness the decommissioning of slightly more than a thousand ex-combatants with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who turned over hundreds of firearms. The ceremony took place in Simuay, a district in Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao, another province in the south.
“We are still determining the group behind the blast, but there is a likelihood it could be the BIFF,” said Maj. Arvin Encinas, a local spokesman for the military, referring to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which splintered from MILF and rejected a peace deal struck between MILF and Manila in 2014.
BIFF kept fighting for a separate Muslim state in the southern Mindanao region. It later pledged allegiance to Islamic State and endorsed an IS-linked siege of the southern Philippine city of Marawi two years ago.
The bomb went off outside the Manolette bread shop in Kalawag 3, a village in Isulan, said Lt. Col. Joven Bagaygay, a local police spokesman.
CCTV footage obtained by police showed a man disguised as a woman leaving a bag with the bomb next to motorbikes that were parked outside the bakery, Bagaygay said.
“We will enhance the footage for possible identification of the suspect,” he said.
Eight civilians were injured in the explosion, officials said.
The bombing on Saturday was an attempt to disrupt the historic handover of weapons and decommissioning of the MILF fighters, said Von Al Haq, a former MILF spokesman who is now a deputy minister for transportation and communication in the regional autonomous government.
“Although it has no direct effect on our event, we have to be firm,” Al Haq told BenarNews.
Al Haq could not affirm that MILF’s former comrades in the BIFF were behind the bombing, but he said no other group was capable of carrying out such an audacious attack.
Duterte: ‘A huge step’
The so-called “decommissioning” of 1,060 former MILF forces on Saturday night was part of the peace agreement that MILF and Manila reached five years ago.
The first phase of the decommissioning happened in 2015, and involved 145 combatants and 75 weapons.
Apart from those ex-MILF fighters who turned in their weapons during Saturday’s ceremony, officials said another 35 percent of the MILF force would be decommissioned next year, with the remainder to follow between 2021 and 2022.
By its own estimates, MILF has as many as 30,000 to 40,000 fighters in its ranks.
“Today, we mark another important milestone in the history of the Bangsamoro peace process. It truly warms my heart that we are able in our promise to be a more inclusive, accountable and transparent government for the Bangsamoro,” President Duterte said in a speech at the decommissioning ceremony, where piles of firearms turned over by the MILF fighters were displayed.
Duterte took office two years after the administration of Benigno Aquino III agreed to the peace deal with MILF.
“This is a huge step in achieving lasting peace,” Duterte said, assuring the demobilized MILF members of his government’s ongoing support for them.
The group’s chairman, Murad Ebrahim, today heads an 80-member team that leads the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
“We will continue to uphold our part of the bargain,” Ebrahim told the crowd during Saturday’s ceremony.
The BARMM zone is made up of at least five southern provinces, where MILF will oversee self-rule until local voters elect their own parliament by 2022.
A majority of voters in those five provinces ratified the autonomous region through a plebiscite held in January and February on a law that granted autonomy to areas controlled by MILF.
The referendum was the final step in the peace pact that was signed five years ago and aimed to settle decades of bloodshed in the Mindanao region.
The Bangsamoro Organic Law, as it is known, gave the impoverished Philippine south an expanded autonomous area and offered self-determination to the nation’s four million Muslims by empowering them to elect their own parliament.
The bombing on Saturday morning, however, was a reminder that the Philippine south remains a volatile region despite the 2014 peace deal.
Earlier this week, the military conceded that the armed forces were still hunting for dozens of foreign Islamic militants believed to be on the loose in the region. Last month, a first batch of 225 ex-MILF fighters began basic training at a Philippine army camp to prepare to become part of a joint security team tasked with going after pro-IS gunmen in the south.
The attack in Sultan Kudarat province on Saturday morning came after two suicide bombers, one of them a Filipino militant, killed six people by setting off explosives at a military camp on southern Jolo Island in late June. In January, an Indonesian couple blew themselves up in killing 23 people at a church in Jolo, authorities said.
IS, which claimed responsibility for both attacks, had appointed local militant Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan as leader of its branch in the Philippines after his predecessor, Isnilon Hapilon, was killed in October 2017, at the end of the five-month battle of Marawi.