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Blast kills 4 during Mass in southern Philippines

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A powerful explosion believed caused by a bomb ripped through a Catholic Mass and killed at least four people and wounded dozens of others Sunday in the southern Philippines, officials said.

The morning Mass was underway in a gymnasium at the state-run Mindanao State University in Marawi city when the explosion happened, causing panic among dozens of students and teachers and leaving the victims bloodied and sprawled on the ground, said Taha Mandangan, the security chief of the state-run campus.

At least two of the wounded were fighting for their lives, Mandangan said.

“This is clearly an act of terrorism. It’s not a simple feud between two people. A bomb will kill everybody around,” Mandangan told The Associated Press by telephone.

Regional military commander Major General Gabriel Viray III said at least four people were killed by the explosion, including three women, and 50 others were brought to two hospitals for treatment of mostly minor injuries.

Only two of those killed had been identified, officials said.

Army troops and police immediately cordoned off the area and were conducting an initial investigation and checking security cameras for any indication of who may have been responsible for the attack. Security checkpoints were set up around the city.

The deadly blast set off a security alarm beyond Marawi city as the Christmas season ushered in a period of travel, shopping sprees and traffic jams across the country. The Philippine coast guard said it ordered all its personnel to intensify intelligence gathering, stricter inspections of passenger ferries and the deployment of bomb-sniffing dogs and sea marshals following the suspected bomb attack.

“Amid this barbaric act, best public service must prevail,” coast guard chief Admiral Ronnie Gavan said in a statement.

Presidential adviser Carlito Galvez, a former military chief of staff who now oversees government efforts to end insurgencies, strongly condemned what he called a bombing incident.

“This horrendous attack, which happened during a Mass…shows the ruthless methods that these lawless elements will utilise to sow fear, anger and animosity among our people,” Galvez said in a statement. “We will not allow this to happen.”

There was no clear indication yet who was responsible for the explosion but police said they would check the possible involvement of militants, who still have a presence in the region despite years of military and police offensives.

Regional police director Brigadier General Allan Nobleza said investigators were assessing if the explosion was caused by a homemade bomb or a grenade, and if the attack was connected to the killing of 11 suspected Islamic militants in a military offensive backed by airstrikes and artillery fires on Friday near Datu Hoffer town in southern Maguindanao province.

Nobleza said the slain militants belonged to Dawlah Islamiyah, an armed group that had aligned itself with the Islamic State group and still has a presence in Lanao del Sur province, where Marawi city is located.

The mosque-studded city came under attack from Islamic militants aligned with the Islamic State group in 2017, leaving more than 1,100 dead, mostly militants, before the five-month siege was quelled by Filipino forces backed by airstrikes and surveillance planes deployed by the United States and Australia.

The southern Philippines is home to Muslim minorities in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation and the scene of decades-old separatist rebellion.

The largest armed insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, signed a 2014 peace deal with the government, considerably easing decades of fighting. But a number of smaller armed groups rejected the peace pact and press on with bombings and other attacks while evading government offensives.

A Filipino trooper guards the entrance of the site where a bomb exploded in Marawi, southern Philippines on Sunday. PHOTO: AP
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