MANILA (7th UPDATE) - At least seven soldiers, a policeman, and six civilians were killed, while 75 were injured as twin explosions ripped through the town plaza of Jolo in the southern province of Sulu on Monday noon, authorities said.
The military said a suspected female suicide bomber also died during the second blast.
The first blast happened in front of a food shop on Serantes Street, Barangay Walled City in Plaza Rizal, said Lt. Col. Ronaldo Mateo of the military's 11th Infantry Division.
A parked motorcycle exploded near the M35 vehicle of the 21st Infantry Battalion, resulting in "numerous casualties," the Jolo Police said in its official report.
"Initially, it's an IED (improvised explosive device) planted in a motorbike," said Maj. Gen. Corleto Vinluan Jr., chief of the military's Western Mindanao Command.
As authorities cordoned off the area, a second explosion hit minutes later in front of a bank, said Mateo.
This was just about 100 meters away from the first blast, said Vinluan, and 10 to 15 meters away from the Jolo Municipal Police station, said ABS-CBN reporter Nickee Butlangan.
"Nasa kabilang kalye itong pangalawang pagsabog. Malakas," said Butlangan, who was reporting from the scene.
(The second explosion happened on the other street. It was strong.)
Authorities said the wounded include 21 soldiers, six policemen, and 48 civilians.
Vinluan said the suspected female suicide bomber who died in the second explosion had an IED with her.
In a separate interview on TeleRadyo, Mateo said the suspected female suicide bomber, whose nationality is yet to be ascertained, attempted to enter the cordoned area, but was intercepted by a soldier.
"Mayroon na lang biglang lumapit na babae na papasok sana doon sa cordoned area. Pero, na-preempt ito ng isa sa mga sundalo natin. And mabuti na lang at hindi nakapasok 'yung suicide bomber na 'yun," Mateo said.
(A woman suddenly arrived and tried to enter the cordoned area, but she was preempted by a soldier. We're lucky the suicide bomber was not able to enter the area.)
But the bomber immediately triggered the bomb.
"Nung na-preempt nung sundalo, tinrigger kaagad nung suicide bomber 'yung bomb. So, nagkaroon ng minimum casualty lang dito sa second bombing, dahil na-preempt ng security forces natin," Mateo said.
(When she was preempted by the soldier, she immediately triggered the bomb. So, there was minimum casualty in the second explosion because our security forces were able to preempt her.)
Aside from the suspected suicide bomber, the soldier that intercepted her also died from the blast.
Mateo said the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is "most probably" responsible for the explosions, as there are no other active terror groups in the province.
The military is in pursuit of alleged perpetrator and Abu Sayyaf leader Mundi Sawadjaan, who was behind the twin blasts that rocked Jolo Cathedral last year killing more than 20 people, Vinluan disclosed.
The 4 soldiers who were killed by policemen in June were on the trail of Sawadjaan, Vinluan said.
"Nung May pa 'yun. Actually, 'yun 'yung sinusundan namin nung, kaya nga may namatay na 4 na sundalo nun diba. Ang target nila, yung suicide bombers, plus si Mundi Sawadjaan," he said.
(We have been pursuing him since May. The 4 soldiers who were killed were targeting the suicide bombers, plus Mundi Sawadjaan.)
"'Yun ang target natin nun na hindi naituloy dahil nga sa nangyari. Wala na sana, oo, sayang," he said, referring to the June shooting incident.
(That was our target then, but it was not achieved due to what happened.)
The ASG is based in the south and has engaged in bombings as well as kidnappings of Western tourists and missionaries for ransom since the early 1990s. They also have ties to Islamic State militants seeking to set up a caliphate in Southeast Asia.
Over a week ago, ASG leader Anduljihad "Idang" Susukan was turned over to authorities in Davao City by Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari.
"We are still looking at the relation of that incident: iyong pagka-arrest ni Idang Susukan at iyong bombing incident... We are still connecting data and information," Mateo told ANC.
Gen. Archie Gamboa, chief of the Philippine National Police, ordered the Bangsamoro regional police to "expedite investigation and make all perpetrators accountable before the law."
Troops are "evacuating and providing treatment for the casualties while securing the area" said military spokesperson Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo.
The 11th Infantry Division and the Joint Task Force Sulu are on high alert following this incident, he said.
"We advise the public to stay calm but be vigilant to monitor and report any suspicious persons or items or unusual activities in the area," said Arevalo.
Jolo municipality has been placed on lockdown for the safety and security of residents, and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) declared "red alert" in the entire southwestern Mindanao region, covering Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi.
"PCG K9 units, safety inspections, and patrol boat operators are directed to be extra vigilant in securing ports, harbors, and other waterways in the region," the coast guard said.
Malacanang condemned the incident, and condoled with the families and loved ones of those who died.
-- With reports from Raffy Santos, Queenie Casimiro and Nickee Butlangan, ABS-CBN News; Agence France-Presse