AFP dismisses IS claim of suicide bombing in Basilan
ZAMBOANGA CITY — The Islamic State (IS) jihadi group has claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing that killed 11 people in Lamitan City, Basilan province, but the military on Wednesday quickly dismissed the claim as propaganda and instead blamed the local bandit group Abu Sayyaf.
Hours after the early Tuesday attack that killed a soldier, five government militiamen and four civilians, including a mother and her child, and the suspected bomber himself, the IS Amaq news sgency reported that IS was responsible for the attack, according to a US monitor.
In a statement, IS called the suicide attack “a martyrdom operation,” said Site Intelligence Group, a US company that tracks online activities of jihadi organizations.
Site said the terror group identified a Moroccan as the “executor” of the bombing who used a “suicide vehicle-borne IED (improvised explosive device),” which was detonated close to a checkpoint in Lamitan after the van was pulled over by militiamen.
Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., who was visiting Zamboanga City on Wednesday, dismissed the claim.
“We saw the Amaq reports. They claim everything and they are doing that to heighten up the support provided to them, but we can see that the support of (IS) in Basilan is waning,” Galvez told reporters at the Western Mindanao Command headquarters.
“It’s clear, very glaring that the one who perpetrated this is a local terrorist of Basilan. What we said that it’s a suicide bomber, or ‘foreign-looking’ suicide bomber, is not conclusive,” he added.
According to him, it was “very unlikely” for a foreigner to drive a van alone in an unfamiliar place.
The military’s spokesperson, Col. Edgard Arevalo, said the attack could have been the handiwork of Abu Sayyaf or “peace spoilers.”
“It’s very easy for other groups to ride on the issue. The IS claiming responsibility could be just propaganda,” he said.
The Western Command chief, Maj. Gen. Arnel dela Vega, said the identification of the driver as “Caucasian-looking” was just an “afterthought.”
“How will they (troops manning the checkpoint) be able to identify that driver was a Caucasian? It was still dark,” Dela Vega said, referring to the time of the blast, which was around 5:45 a.m. on Tuesday.
“We are just terrorizing ourselves. There is no definite and factual evidence that it’s foreign looking,” he said.
According to Dela Vega, the driver “may have been just a courier.”
He said the bomb components were placed in two 20-liter containers and one big kettle of suspected ammonium nitrate rigged to explode inside the van.
The bomb was so powerful that it obliterated the van, gouged a small crater on the ground and sent parts of the vehicle as far as 1.5 kilometers away from the blast site, which was just a few meters from the Magwakit Patrol Base at Barangay Bulanting, Vice Mayor Roderick Furigay told the Inquirer.
“It’s heartbreaking to secure or pick up pieces of flesh, bones, strands of hair and other parts of the bodies,” Furigay said of efforts to recover the remains of those killed in the explosion.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a former Philippine National Police chief, on Tuesday said the attack could be the first suicide bombing in the country and this could start “a trend… of terroristic acts that could hit other highly populated urban centers.”
He urged a deeper probe of the attack.
US Ambassador Sung Kim condemned the bombing, calling it a “terrorist act,” and expressed sympathies to the victims.
The US government remains committed to working with Filipinos “to further the causes of peace and prosperity,” Kim said in a statement on Twitter on Wednesday.
Tuesday’s blast was a “horrifying attack” and a “cowardly act,” said opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who said the attack should not derail moves toward Muslim self-determination under the recently approved Bangsamoro Organic Law.
The bombing was a sign extremists were bent on sabotaging a peace effort that had a chance of success, according to security expert Rommel Banlaoi.
“These pro-Islamic State militants will pose a tremendous challenge for the implementation of the Bangsamoro Organic Law,” Banlaoi said.
The military received intelligence reports prior to the blast that the Abu Sayyaf was planning to carry out bombings in Basilan, according to Col. Fernando Reyeg, the commander of the military’s Task Force Basilan.
Following the bombing, the police also went on full alert around Mindanao.
In Iligan City and surrounding provinces, authorities stepped up security measures.
The Northern Mindanao police director, Chief Supt. Timoteo Pacleb, ordered all police units to harden the security of key installations across the region.
The regional police spokesperson, Supt. Surki Sereñas, said the public should expect frequent checkpoints and security inspections in public places like malls, public transport terminals and areas of convergence.
Cagayan de Oro Mayor Oscar Moreno urged the public to be vigilant and follow security guidelines from the authorities as the city prepares for Higalaay fiesta celebrations later this month.
Moreno ordered checkpoints at every entry and exit point around the city and thorough inspections of vehicles and passengers coming into Cagayan de Oro. —With reports from Frinston Lim, Jeoffrey Maitem, Divina Suson and Jigger Jerusalem In Mindanao; Dona Z. Pazzibugan In Manila; and the wires
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