Philippine security forces have killed a suspected Islamic militant and foiled a bomb attack in Cotabato, ten days after a deadly mall attack in the southern city and ahead of this month’s autonomy vote, the military said Thursday.
The suspect belonged to the militant Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) group, and was aboard a motorcycle as he tried to pass through a military checkpoint into the city Wednesday evening, officials said.
“He was killed in a shootout,” regional military spokesman Maj. Arvin Encinas told BenarNews. He said that an improvised bomb fashioned from an 81mm mortar projectile was recovered from the compartment of his motorcycle.
Had he entered the city and detonated the bomb, it would have likely led to mass casualties. Last week, on New Year’s Eve, a similar explosive device was set off outside the South Seas Mall, killing two people and wounding about 30 others.
The military has identified the two suspects, and have arrested one, who allegedly also belonged to the BIFF, which broke away from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) after the latter gave up its independence fight and settled for expanded autonomy.
Last year’s President Rodrigo Duterte signed a long-delayed Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) aimed at giving the now-civilian MILF group powers to govern on their own. Muslim areas in the south are to go to the polls later this month to ratify the law, and officials have said that militant groups that are to be sidelined by the law, such as the BIFF, were expected to carry out more attacks to disrupt the vote.
Some two million people in the Muslim provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur are expected to join the plebiscite on January 21 to ratify the BOL. The BOL aims to give the MILF full control of the autonomous region, where they would be allowed to form an elected parliament and administration in Islamic-majority areas.
Regional police commander Chief Supt. Eliseo Rasco said suspects Salipudin Lauban Pasandalan, who was recently arrested, and a certain Saed Nur Kasim, who remains at large, had been charged with two counts of murder and 34 counts of frustrated murder.
The blast prompted the United Kingdom and Australia to update travel warning for their citizens, advising against travel to the southern Philippines.
On Thursday, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said that British envoy to Manila Daniel Pruce sought him out to clarify that his government had not changed its travel advice to its citizens since January 2017, but had simply issued an update on the Dec. 31 attack.
“Our current guidance against all travel to Western Mindanao and all but essential travel to Eastern Mindanao and Southern Cebu has not changed since January 2017,” Pruce said in a statement posted on the British Embassy Facebook page. “We did publish a factual update on 31 December 2018, recording the blast in Cotabato City.”
Panelo said he was assured by the British official that factual updates and changes in the level of their advisories “get mixed together, but are not one and the same.”
Dennis Jay Santos contributed reporting from Davao City and Richel V. Umel from Iligan City