JOLO, Philippines (AP) – Two bombs minutes apart tore through a Roman Catholic cathedral on a southern Philippine island, killing at least 20 people and wounding 111 others during a mass yesterday, officials said.
Witnesses said the first blast inside the Jolo cathedral in the provincial capital sent churchgoers, some of them wounded, to stampede out of the main door.
Army troops and police posted outside were rushing in when the second bomb went off about one minute later near the main entrance, causing more deaths and injuries.
The military was checking a report that the second explosive device may have been attached to a parked motorcycle.
The initial explosion scattered the wooden pews inside the main hall and blasted window glass panels, and the second bomb hurled human remains and debris across a town square, witnesses said.
Cellphone signal was cut off in the first hours after the attack.
The witnesses who spoke to The Associated Press refused to give their names or were busy at the scene of the blasts.
Police said at least 20 people died and 111 were wounded, correcting an earlier toll due to double counting. The fatalities included 15 civilians and five troops. Among the wounded were 17 troops, two police, two coast guard and 90 civilians.
Troops in armoured carriers sealed off the main road leading to the church while vehicles transported the dead and wounded to the town hospital. Some casualties were evacuated by air to nearby Zamboanga city.
“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,” said Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in a statement.
“We will pursue to the ends of the earth the ruthless perpetrators behind this dastardly crime until every killer is brought to justice and put behind bars. The law will give them no mercy,” the office of President Rodrigo Duterte said in Manila.
It said that “the enemies of the state boldly challenged the government’s capability to secure the safety of citizens in that region. The (Armed Forces of the Philippines) will rise to the challenge and crush these criminals.”
Jolo island has long been troubled by the presence of Abu Sayyaf militants, who are blacklisted by the United States (US) and the Philippines as a terrorist organisation because of years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings.
A Catholic bishop, Benjamin de Jesus, was gunned down by suspected militants outside the cathedral in 1997.
No one has immediately claimed responsibility for the latest attack.
It came nearly a week after the minority in the nation endorsed a new autonomous region in the southern Philippines in hopes of ending nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion that has left 150,000 people dead.
Although most of the areas approved the autonomy deal, voters in Sulu province, where Jolo is located, rejected it.
The province is home to a rival rebel faction that’s opposed to the deal as well as smaller militant cells that not part of any peace process.
Security officials were looking “at different threat groups and they still can’t say if this has something to do with the just concluded plebiscite,” National Police Chief Oscar Albayalde told ABS-CBN TV network.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said that the new autonomous region, called Bangsamoro, “signifies the end of war for secession. It stands for peace in Mindanao.”