MANILA - Troops were deployed to southern villages that will decide whether or not to join the Bangsamoro region next week, the military said Tuesday, following twin blasts that killed 21 people and injured scores at a Catholic church in Sulu province.
Sunday's bombing came less than a week after a majority of voters in the present Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Cotabato City and Isabela, Basilan on Jan. 21 approved a law to establish the Bangsamoro in place of the ARMM.
On Feb. 6, voters from 39 barangays in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte will decide on their inclusion in the Bangsamoro.
The military's 103rd Infantry Brigade was tasked to focus on these areas and implement security measures together with the police and Commission on Elections, said Col. Gerry Besana, spokesperson of the Western Mindanao Command.
"Marami na rin po tayong natutunan, experience natin doon sa nakaraang plebisito... Pipilitin po natin na maging mas payapa at mas maging successful po iyung gaganapin pong Bangsamoro Organic Law plebiscite," he told radio DZMM.
(We've learned a lot from the previous plebiscite. We will strive to make the upcoming Bangsamoro Organic Law plebiscite more peaceful and successful.)
The Islamic State on Monday claimed responsibility for the explosions at the Jolo Cathedral with 2 suicide bombers detonating explosive belts, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist activities.
The military said it was not discounting this, but added that Ajang-Ajang, a small band tied to the Abu Sayyaf bandit group, was a suspect in the bombing.
The chief of the Philippine National Police, Director General Oscar Albayalde, said the presence of suicide bombers was unlikely if residents would be able to identify all 21 fatalities. Only 2 bodies have not been identified as of Tuesday morning, he said.
Besana also said it was unlikely that a foreigner carried out the attack because they would have attracted attention from residents.
IMPACT ON PEACE
Regardless of who staged the bombing, concern was growing over the impact it will have on a decades-long push for peace that culminated last week in voters approving expanded Muslim self-rule in the south.
The vote was the result of negotiations started in the 1990s with the nation's largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and will give it considerable power over the so-called Bangsamoro region.
The former rebels need to show they will be able to pull the region toward peace in order to attract much-needed investment to alleviate poverty and counter extremism, said Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
"MILF needs to prove it can make a difference... the gravity of the problem faced by MILF is wow, so overwhelming," he told Agence France-Presse.
The church attack came despite President Rodrigo Duterte, who visited the cathedral Monday, putting Mindanao under martial rule in May 2017 after pro-IS militants seized the southern city of Marawi.
Government officials have argued that martial rule, which gives authorities extra powers, has been effective in taming the restive region. But families of the dead, who began holding funerals on Monday, have become the latest in the Philippines' south to mourn loved ones killed in a bomb attack.
"My 81-year-old mother does not deserve this kind of death," Edward Non told AFP, with a row of victims' coffins behind him.
"This has to stop. It's the innocent civilians who suffer."
With a report from Ayee Macaraig, Agence France-Presse