Updated at 6:45 a.m. ET on 2019-01-27
Two homemade bombs exploded during a Sunday Mass at a Catholic church in the southern Philippines, killing at least 20 people and wounding 81 others, officials said, in a daring attack blamed on suspected pro-Islamic State militants.
The first bomb detonated inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, capital of Sulu province, about 960 km (600 miles) south of Manila. Then another bomb exploded at a parking lot as people scampered for safety after the first explosion, the military said.
“We condemn this dastardly attack on civilians who were peacefully attending church services at the Jolo Cathedral,” military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said.
No group has claimed responsibility for the blasts, but Gov. Mujiv Hataman said the bombings were likely carried out by the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf militants.
“We do not want to make speculations, but we can be sure that this is 99 percent the handiwork of terrorists,” Hataman told reporters.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said several victims had been airlifted to Zamboanga City, about 150 km (93 miles) north of Jolo.
“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,” Lorenzana told reporters.
Chief Superintendent Graciano Mijares, the regional police commander, said 20 people died, including five soldiers, correcting higher figures released earlier by authorities. He said 14 soldiers and two policemen were among the 81 who suffered injuries.
Military chief Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr. condemned the attacks, describing them as treachery, and vowed to hunt down and use “the full force of the law" to punish those responsible.
“I call on the people for calm and sobriety as government security forces address this attack," he said.
The bombings took place just two days after the nation’s elections commission confirmed that a majority in the mostly Muslim provinces in the southern Philippines had cast “yes” ballots on Monday for the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) versus almost 200,000 who had voted against it.
Residents of Jolo voted to reject inclusion in Muslim autonomous region promised to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which would gain huge administrative power under the BOL.
The law aims to give the south an expanded autonomous area, offering self-determination to the nation’s four million Muslims by empowering them to elect their own parliament and control over many local government functions, including taxation and education. It would also allow Muslim Filipinos to incorporate Sharia law into their justice system.
National security adviser Hermogenes Esperon said the bombings appeared to have been carried out by people opposed to the BOL. He did not name the Abu Sayyaf, although the group has been left out of any negotiations related to autonomy because it is considered a terrorist organization.
“The Bangsamoro Organic Law signifies the end of war for secession,” he said, calling those behind the attack as “mass murderers” and “extremist criminals.”
The military poured additional forces in Jolo last month in a bid to crush the Abu Sayyaf, which has an estimated armed strength of less than 500. The group gained notoriety for its alleged involvement in recent bombings and for beheading some of its kidnapped victims.
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 country.
A faction of the Abu Sayyaf led by Isnilon Hapilon, who was considered the Islamic State’s leader in Southeast Asia, ventured across the Mindanao island and took over the city of Marawi in 2017. Five months of gunbattles ensued, destroying the predominantly Islamic city and killing about 1,200 people, most of them militants. Hapilon and other key militants were slain in October 2017.
Salvador Panelo, President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman, vowed that authorities would go after the perpetrators of Sunday’s bombings.
“The law will give them no mercy,” he told reporters, adding that the bombings posed a challenge for the Duterte government to crush the Abu Sayyaf, which has survived for years by attracting young, disgruntled Muslims living in impoverished southern regions.
The twin explosions occurred days after the Jan. 21 vote that led to the ratification of the BOL in the predominantly Muslim provinces of Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur. Although Jolo voted “no” to inclusion, the law is virtually a done deal.
Another plebiscite will take place on Feb. 6 in six towns in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato. The results, however, are not likely to change the overall outcome, experts said.
Authorities hope that the BOL will end a nearly 40-year conflict, which has killed more than 120,000 people on Mindanao, the country’s second-largest island. As part of a deal struck with Manila over BOL, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front had also agreed to disband its fighting force.
Richel V. Umel in Iligan City contributed to this report.
Updated to correct the higher death toll released earlier by authorities.