COTABATO – Five people were killed and more than 30 others were wounded in a bomb attack outside a Catholic church packed with worshippers in Cotabato City Sunday, police and military said.
Authorities said the explosion killed on the spot Ruby Ramirez, a woman selling roast pork outside Immaculate Conception cathedral. Police said three others, including two soldiers, were reportedly killed at the scene, while another was reported to have died of injuries in hospital.
Rogue Muslim rebels were suspected of placing the bomb near a food stall outside the church located along Quezon Avenue corner Makakua Street, said Army's 6th Infantry Division spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Ponce. The device was reportedly detonated when an Army truck was passing, he added.
Thirty five people, including soldiers, were wounded in the explosion. Froi Cordero, a priest who helped take the wounded to a hospital, said those hurt -- many of them women and children -- were being treated for blast wounds.
The powerful improvised bomb exploded around 8:40 a.m. as churchgoers attended a morning Mass at the Immaculate Conception.
Witnesses said Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo had just finished reading the gospel and was about to begin his homily when an explosion was heard. The blast triggered a panic as people inside the church rushed toward the altar. He stopped the Mass and appealed to churchgoers to calm down.
"The explosion was so loud as if the cathedral was about to collapse," Merly Sandoval, a churchgoer, told a local radio station.
"It was like loud and frightening thunder. People inside the packed cathedral ran toward the altar. Outside, everybody was screaming, there was so much blood on the ground."
After a few minutes, Quevedo decided to continue the Mass and asked the people to pray for peace.
Task Force Tugis meanwhile reportedly took a man inside the cathedral compound after receiving information that he was the one who planted the bomb. The suspect is reportedly now being investigated by authorities.
Pointed fingers, denials
Condemnation meanwhile was quick as well as the pointing of those possibly responsible.
"I strongly condemn this most recent act of terrorism victimizing innocent civilians. This murderous act of insanity although inflicting injury and misery on hapless civilians cannot and will not succeed in instilling fear and weaken the peace-loving populace,” said Secretary Jesus Dureza, presidential adviser for Mindanao.
He said President Arroyo has ordered that immediate assistance be given to the victims “with dispatch.”
President Arroyo directed security forces "to get to the bottom of the blast, arrest those responsible as soon as possible" and ensure security in the city of about 200,000, her spokesman Secretary Cerge Remonde said.
Lt. Gen. Raymundo B Ferrer, Armed Forces Eastern Mindanao Command chief, also condemned the bomb attack.
“While we are saddened by the death and wounding of innocent civilians, our desire to capture the perpetrators are strengthened even more. These terrorists will not succeed in derailing the peace efforts of the government but will instead unite everyone in putting an end to terrorism,” Ferrer said however in a message sent to media.
Ponce said the crude bomb, made from a mortar round and remotely detonated by a mobile phone, was placed across the road from the church.
Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Ponce was quick to blame separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels for the blast.
"The special operations group of the MILF is behind this," Ponce said, adding that the MILF had carried out similar attacks in recent weeks.
He said a bomb allegedly also planted by MILF rebels exploded in the nearby town of Datu Piang late Saturday, wounding three people.
"They are getting desperate because of the military operations," Ponce said, stressing that the attacks were apparently meant to divert military attention.
The military said it had received intelligence reports earlier indicating that the MILF was to carry out bomb attacks in major cities in Mindanao, the main southern island where they have been fighting for an independent Islamic state over the past three decades.
"That was why we had stepped up our troop visibility. But we only have so much troops and we can't cover all" of Mindanao, said Armed Forces’ spokesman Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner.
Mohaqher Iqbal, a senior leader of the MILF, the largest Muslim rebel group in the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines, however denied his group was involved in the attack.
"Who needs a Christian-Muslim conflict?," Iqbal told Reuters in a mobile phone text message.
"There's no religious conflict in the south. We're fighting for our right of self-determination. We're only defending our people and our communities."
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu also denied the accusation, saying attacking civilians was against Islamic principles.
"The Army has already blamed us even as an investigation into the bombing is yet to be carried out," Kabalu said by telephone from the south.
He said the bombing could also be the work of right-wing saboteurs opposed to any possible resumption of peace talks.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan, in a statement, also condemned “this latest act of senseless violence.” He also called on the government to find the culprits.
Pangilinan however challenged authorities “to come up with hard evidence and put perpetrators behind the string of bombings in jail.”
“Clearly there are anti-democratic forces at work, and we call on this government to go beyond rounding up usual suspects and get to the bottom of what appears to be a concerted effort taking place in many parts of the country to sow panic and instability.”
Pangilinan called for a comprehensive investigation into the bombings in Mindanao as he “caution the government from drawing conclusions without first securing compelling evidence.”
So-called lawless members of the MILF have been fighting the Army since August, when the government ended peace talks with the MILF after the Supreme Court stopped a deal to expand an existing Muslim autonomous region on the southern island of Mindanao.
Nearly 600 people have been killed since then, many civilians caught in the fighting.
Fighting around the marshlands on central Mindanao has escalated in the last eight weeks, forcing more than 350,000 people to flee their homes and farms and pushing back any chance of resuming the peace talks.
The 40-year Muslim separatist conflict on Mindanao is driving away potential investments into the impoverished region, believed to be sitting on rich deposits of minerals, oil and natural gas.
Last January 14, a powerful improvised bomb was found inside the cathedral but it failed to go off due to faulty wiring, police and church officials said.
The bomb, fashioned from a live 60-mm mortar round rigged with a battery-operated timing device, was found in a black bag and covered with packed food. Reports from Halima Satol, ABS-CBN Cotabato, Agence France-Presse and Reuters