COTABATO CITY—Politicians propped up by drug traffickers could be behind the powerful car bomb explosion that shook the city’s commercial district on Monday, according to its mayor.
“We will know soon who’s behind the bombing,” Mayor Japal Guiani Jr. said Tuesay afternoon as he announced the arrest of three persons who were seen on a closed-circuit TV monitor during the attack. He declined to name the suspects, but said they were undergoing interrogation at the police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG).
The death toll rose from six to nine yesterday, as three victims died in the hospital. At least 40 people were hurt in the explosion, which occurred barely two weeks after a bomb went off at a mall in Cagayan de Oro City, killing six people and wounding over 40 others.
At Subic Freeport in Olongapo City, President Aquino summoned members of the Cabinet security cluster to an emergency meeting in Malacañang for a “security assessment on the bombing,” even as he ruled out that it was related to the global alert against attacks by terrorists linked to al-Qaida.
Aquino’s set of suspects
The Palace has condemned the bombing and vowed to hunt down and punish those responsible.
Vice President Jejomar Binay on Tuesday called for prayers for the victims and their grieving families and a “thorough” police investigation. “The victims and their families deserve swift justice,” he said in a statement in Manila.
The President said the government had its own set of “suspects,” but he did not identify them.
“At this point in time, the suspects have been the objects of our concern for a very long time, and we’ve been pursuing the same suspects,” he told journalists during his visit to the port to welcome the arrival of the Philippines’ second cutter, the BRP Ramon Alcaraz. “We are not yet sure that they are the parties responsible for this (bombing).”
Guiani said the perpetrators could be some of his “critics and politicians funded by the illegal drugs trade.” He said a powerful group might have been hurt by the city’s peace and order campaign which, he added, had managed to contain cases of kidnapping and other crimes related to illegal drugs since 2010.
The bombers, Guiani said, were after him or his sister, City Administrator Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, who was on board a Chevrolet bulletproof van about 10 meters from the blast site. “She is fortunate that there were two vehicles ahead [of her van],” he said.
Guiani said he and his sister had been receiving death threats following his election in 2010.
“We will know soon who’s behind this bombing,” Guiani said as he waved three brown envelopes marked “Top Secret.” “These will unmask the mastermind and other personalities behind the breakdown of law and order in the city.”
State of emergency?
“Like other instances, I’m sure that we will be able to get all of these culprits in due time,” Aquino said.
The President said he had yet to receive Guiani’s request to place the city under a state of emergency.
“We will ascertain if the city needs that. It could be an … initial reaction [on his part] because of the shocking turn of events. The assessment [of the Cabinet security cluster] … will give me the indicators of whether or not it is necessary to do so,” he said.
When asked to categorically say that the explosion was not the work of terrorist networks operating in Mindanao, the President said: “We don’t have any indicator that this was what [caused the blast].”
“There is also a potential … political angle in Cotabato. There is a … criminal [group] in Cagayan de Oro [who could be behind the explosion]. So we are exhausting all these leads with developing … cases, or we’re investigating the same leads to determine exactly who perpetrated” the attack, he said.
He said he wanted to know the “how, the why (did it happen), and eventually, all this will help us arrest the concerned individuals.”
Aquino disclosed that one angle being looked at was the potential spoilers to the peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The government is about to conclude talks with the MILF on the remaining annexes to the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro that was signed last year.
“Let’s not forget that there are sectors that don’t want the peace process to continue. And maybe, the (security forces) were prepared for this (attack), but it’s becoming impossible for us to be present in all places to prevent this. Really, terrorist by their nature—they are few—are hiding and secretive. But I think we will find them in the near future,” he said.
The MILF has vowed to help authorities in identifying the culprits.
“We condemn the bombing in the highest terms. This is an act of evil, this is un-Islamic, innocent civilians suffered because of this one evil act, many of the victims were Muslims,” said Ghadzali Jaafar, MILF vice chair for political affairs. He said he was saddened that it was carried out during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“Whoever did this deserves the wrath of Allah,” said Muhammad Ameen, head of the MILF secretariat. He said that during Ramadan, it is prohibited to initiate fighting even if there is an ongoing war between two parties.
Senior Supt. Rolen Balquin, city police chief, identified two of the latest fatalities as Nasruddin Guialel and Salipudin Sindatok, who died at about 10 p.m. on Monday at Cotabato Regional Medical Center (CRMC). At least 40 other persons were brought to the nearby Notre Dame Hospital and CRMC.
Jeanice Menak, 5, expired at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday night. Her parents are on vacation from London.
Also killed were Samsuddin Ahari and Usop Jaji, both security escorts of Sayadi; Sangcala Satol, 7-year-old Jebbin Menak and 9-year-old Harris Unto, all passersby; and SPO3 Mama Manambuay.
Manambuay, who died in the hospital, was with Chief Insp. Abubakar Mangelen, both of the Maguindanao police intelligence unit, on board a white Mitsubishi Strada van, when the blast occurred at 4:25 p.m. Mangelen is out of danger, his relatives said.
Same bomb make
Mayor Guiani said the bomb used during Monday’s attack was similar to the “enflaming” explosive that ruined commercial establishments at Awang Airport in Maguindanao in a terrorist attack in 2003. It was made from a 105 mortar shell wired and wrapped in phosphorus and a combustible substance, such as a gasoline-soaked jute sack, he said.
“This means that the maker or makers of both bombs are experts, and they both belong to the same category of high-profile terrorism,” he said.
Guiani said police investigators were looking into the accounts of two witnesses and electronically retrieving phone conversations and text messages.
In Manila, Senior Supt. Reuben Theodore Sindac, Philippine National Police spokesman, also said the bomb rigged to a vehicle parked along Sinsuat Avenue might have been intended for City Administrator Sayadi.
“We’re looking at the possibility that this could be an emerging modus [of a criminal syndicate]. They could have placed the bomb instead of [using firearms] to ambush the target,” Sindac said in a press briefing at Camp Crame.
“Instead of gun-for-hire, this might be bomb-for-hire,” he said.
He noted reports that Sayadi had escaped two previous attempts on her life.
“Since (the assassins) had failed to kill her using guns, they might have resorted to using explosives this time (since) the subject or target was using a bulletproof vehicle,” Sindac said.
Asked if the explosion was related to the global terror alert that the US government had issued a few days ago, the official said the police “don’t see any immediate or direct connection.”
“We are also not discounting the fact that this is connected to the Cagayan de Oro incident,” he said.
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a missionary Catholic congregation serving the strife-torn Muslim region through various ministries, strongly condemned the bomb attack.—With reports from Michael Lim Ubac, Tarra Quismundo and Marlon Ramos in Manila