Five church bombing suspects in custody: Philippine police

MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Five suspected Abu Sayyaf militants accused of involvement in the deadly bombing of a Roman Catholic cathedral in the southern Philippines have surrendered to authorities, the National Police Chief said yesterday.

Police Director-General Oscar Albayalde said the five would be charged with murder and attempted murder for their role in the January 27 attack at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Sulu province’s Jolo town, which killed 23 people and wounded about 100 others.

Police have said the attack was carried out by two Indonesian suicide bombers. Police said the suspects taken into custody had escorted the two Indonesians around Jolo and to a meeting with an Abu Sayyaf commander, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who has been accused of plotting and funding the attack.

Police said the five suspects were led by a suspected local militant identified as Kammah Pae, who has denied any involvement in the bombing.

The attack has renewed terrorism fears across the Philippines and the national police have been placed on full alert and security has been strengthened in churches, shopping malls and other public areas.

Chief of the Philippine National Police Director General Oscar Albayalde speaks at a news conference. – AP

President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered troops to destroy the Abu Sayyaf, leading to a renewed military offensive in the south that has included air strikes and gunbattles.

The attack has also highlighted concerns that the Islamic State (IS) group may be gaining a foothold in Southeast Asia after sustaining major battle setbacks in Syria and Iraq. Local militants aligned with the brutal extremist group laid siege to Marawi city in the southern Philippines for five months in 2017 before they were defeated by the military.

Albayalde said the Abu Sayyaf, a small but violent group based in the jungles of Jolo and outlying island provinces, staged the cathedral bombing to gain attention and possible funding from the IS group.

“It’s the very same reason why they pledged allegiance to ISIS. They are seeking funding and they are bombing, kidnapping and murdering targets to get funds from the ISIS,” Albayalde said at a news conference in Manila.

The Abu Sayyaf, which has about 300 to 400 armed fighters, has been blacklisted by the United States (US) and the Philippines as a terrorist organisation because of years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings.

The commander implicated in the cathedral attack, Sawadjaan, is a preacher who has been linked to ransom kidnappings and the beheadings of hostages, including two Canadian men in 2016.