Suspected Muslim militants detonated an improvised bomb at a packed shopping mall in the southern Philippine city of Cotabato on Monday, killing two people and wounding at least 24 others, a general said.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The explosion ahead of New Year's Eve celebrations occurred amid heightened security in the south and weeks before the troubled region was due to go the polls to vote on ratifying a law signed by President Rodrigo Duterte for expanding autonomy in the south.
The suspects apparently left the improvised bomb near the entrance of the South Seas Mall. Closed-circuit television footage showed the area packed with holiday makers when the blast occurred, setting off panic.
“Our EOD guys are scouring the area to check on what kind of bomb was used. Another IED (improvised explosive device) was recovered nearby,” said local military chief Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana.
Bomb experts were checking what trigger mechanism was used to set off the explosion, he said.
It was the latest in a spate of bombings in the south since early this year.
While it was too early to pin blame on a particular group, Sobejana said he was inclined to believe the suspects could either be members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) or Daulah Islamiyah, a loose grouping of radical militants.
Both groups rejected last year’s passage of a Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which was signed by Duterte in July, four years after the government approved a peace deal with a former separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Frances Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, the mayor of Cotabato, condemned the incident as an "act of terror."
“It is unimaginable how some people can start the New Year with an act of cruelty,” Guiani-Sayadi said. “This is not just another terroristic act but an act against humanity. I cannot fathom how such evil exists in this time of merry making.”
“We will stand up against terrorism,” she said. “We will fight against evil.”
Boosting recruitment efforts
Security analysts had said earlier that if the south failed to ratify the BOL in January, it could lead to trouble. Islamic State-linked groups, such as the BIFF and the Daulah Islmiyah, could take advantage of the situation to boost their recruitment efforts, analysts warned.
The military, under Sobejana, launched massive offensives against the two groups last week, ahead of the polls.
“This is part of the retaliation, but the problem is, they are targeting civilians,” he said.
The city’s police chief, Senior Superintendent Molly Octavio, said the explosion killed two civilians and wounded about two dozen others.
“We have a terror threat report before the blast. Right now, we have witnesses and hopefully we can get the suspects,” he said.
Earlier, a MILF field commander, Wahid Tundok, warned of potential violence if the plebiscite results did not favor the expanded autonomy.
“If they will not accept it, we will have a conflict against each other,” he said.
Tundok’s warnings carried some weight. He was implicated in a January 2015 clash that left 44 police commandos dead.
Some two million people in the Muslim provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawu-Tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur are expected to join the plebiscite on January 21 to ratify the BOL.
The law aims to give Muslims in the south full control of the autonomous region, where they will be allowed to form an elected parliament and administration in Islamic-majority areas.