JOLO, SULU?A wave of bombings appears to be in the works, with three more bomb attacks occurring in parts of Mindanao after the deadly explosion in Cotabato City on Sunday.
At least two people were killed and at least 36 others were injured in the explosions that hit Jolo and Iligan City Tuesday. A tower of National Transmission Corp. (Transco) in Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte, was also bombed on Monday night.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Shortly before Tuesday morning?s explosion in Jolo, police officers were herding onlookers away from a suspected bomb discovered near the Caltex gas station on Arolas Street.
It turned out that the suspected bomb was not intended to go off, and the onlookers had retreated to a spot where the real one was planted?some 30 meters from the gas station and about 50 meters from Mt. Carmel Church.
When the smoke cleared, two persons?a man and a woman, both in their 60s?were dead and 27 others were wounded. Four passing jeepneys were damaged.
Chief Supt. Bensali Jabarani, police director of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, identified those killed as Vicky Sia and Hamsirani Hamsi.
He said three police officers?SPO1 Musin Appang, PO3 Almouzrine Sabdani and PO2 Nadzmer Adjibun?were among the injured.
Chief Insp. Usman Sali Pingay, Jolo police chief, said the bomb could have been detonated by remote control because the timing was so precise.
Civilians reported seeing American troops at the blast site as local authorities gathered the bomb fragments.
Church not the target
Brig. Gen. Muhammad Nur Askalani of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process said it was unclear if the explosion was ?political in nature? or had a connection with bomb attacks elsewhere.
But he stressed that the bomb was nowhere near Mt. Carmel Church, as earlier reports had indicated.
Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban, the military commander in Sulu, also said the church could not have possibly been the target. ?It is about a block away,? he pointed out.
Jewelry shop owner Ah Chay, who was about three blocks from the site, described the explosion as ?powerful.?
Said Askalani: ?There was a loud blast. The impact was quite great.?
Maj. Gen. Ben Dolorfino, the Marine commandant, surmised that ?the decoy bomb was intended to maximize casualties.
Citing initial investigation results, Dolorfino said the bomb that exploded was similar to the motorcycle bomb that went off months ago near the provincial capitol complex in Patikul, narrowly missing Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan.
The bomb used in Tan?s attempted assassination was the purported handiwork of the bandit group Abu Sayyaf.
A car bomb exploded in Iligan City about three hours later Tuesday, wounding at least nine persons including three soldiers.
The bomb went off near the Exquisite Pawnshop at the corner of Sabayle and Calibili streets at around 10:30 a.m., according to 1Lt. Estefani Cacho, spokesperson of the Western Mindanao Command.
Cacho said Capt. Edito Anchete of the Army?s Armored Division in Iligan was one of the three wounded soldiers.
According to Senior Supt. Leonardo Salas Esclamado, the city police director, the soldiers were on a Kennedy-type jeep that had just parked beside a red car fitted with the bomb.
Esclamado said the bomb was detonated by cell phone. ?We are still investigating it,? he said.
Lt. Col. Juvymax Uy, commanding officer of the Army?s 43rd Infantry Battalion, said the city had been put under full alert.
2 of 4 explosives
Four explosives were used in the bombing of the Transco tower in Barangay Upper Paiton, Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte, at around 11 p.m. on Monday.
Only two of the explosives went off but the tower was toppled, engineer Eric Vincent Cariaga, Lanao district manager of National Grid Corp. (NGC) of the Philippines, said Tuesday.
He said the explosion resulted in the shutdown of the Abaga-Aurora line.
Cariaga said an emergency restoration system was used while the engineering crew was dismantling the toppled structure to rebuild a new steel tower.
The explosion occurred after the discovery of similar bombs strapped onto an NGC tower in Iligan.
De Venecia?s view
Said Eid Kabalu, the civil-military affairs chief of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF): ?We tend to believe former Speaker Jose de Venecia?s view that this is part of a national grand design leading to a military takeover.?
Kabalu pointed out that the bomb attacks were not only confined to Mindanao??a very clear sign? backing the purported ?grand design.?
He assailed the military for pinning such bomb attacks on the MILF.
?These are old songs. These are antiquated allegations. To settle this [matter] once and for all, an investigation has to be done, maybe with the participation of the international community,? he said.
Act of extortion
The bomb attack that occurred on Sunday in front of a Catholic church in Cotabato City was carried out by local extortionists who might have been trained by foreigners, a military source said Tuesday.
The death toll in that attack has risen to six.
The military source, who requested anonymity for lack of authority to speak on the matter, said the target was not the church but a McDonald?s outlet a few meters from the explosion site.
?The target was the fast-food chain beside the meat shop where the bomb exploded,? he said.
The source said extortionists had earlier been phoning the McDonald?s franchisee, Oscar Tan Abing.
?They demanded a huge amount of money and warned they will bomb his store. He did not report it to authorities. Had he reported it, the bomb attack could have been prevented,? the source said.
The source said that according to the investigation, the bomb that was in a paper box was originally planted in front of the McDonald?s store but was picked up by a mentally ill man who himself was killed in the explosion.
?The guy thought the box contained food so he took it away,? the source said. ?He opened the paper box in front of the meat shop just five meters away, and it went off.?
The source said the extortion angle should erase suspicions that the MILF was behind the Sunday bomb attack.
?That?s the real angle, but it?s possible that those who planted the bomb received training from the [regional terrorist network] Jemaah Islamiyah,? he said.
But Lt. Col. Jonathan Ponce, spokesperson of the Army?s 6th Infantry Division in Maguindanao, said the military still believed that the target was the church. He said the matter was still being investigated.
Suspected bomber freed
Ponce also said the suspected bomber, Rico Torres Aburva, had been turned over to the police.
But Senior Supt. Willie Dangane, police chief of Cotabato City, told reporters that Aburva, who was arrested shortly after the explosion, was released on Monday afternoon.
?There was no witness against him, so we released him,? Dangane said.
The MILF?s Kabalu said Aburva?s release was not surprising.
?If he were a Muslim, he would have been charged already,? Kabalu said.
On Monday, Presidential Assistant for Mindanao Jesus Dureza urged the people of Central Mindanao to unite against terror.
?[These bomb attacks are] no longer isolated but orchestrated,? he said, quoting the military.
But he added: ?No evidence was given to me by the military about the involvement of the MILF.?
Maj. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, chief of the Eastern Mindanao Command, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the immediate concern was to secure possible terror targets and bring Cotabato City back to normal as soon as possible.
?We are cooperating with the police in pursuing those who are responsible. Of course, we cannot discount the possibility of other angles aside from a terrorist attack. We are also looking at extortion, business rivalry and personal vendetta,? Ferrer said.
Call for probe
Ustadz Mike Ibrahim, deputy secretary general of the National Ulama League of the Philippines, described the Sunday explosion as barbaric.
?We call for an in-depth investigation. A third-party probe would be helpful. And we should not point to any organization without evidence,? he said.
Mayor Muslimin Sema also said it was too early for ?masquerading politicians? to project the bomb attack as ?an offshoot of a Christian-Muslim conflict.? Reports from Julie Alipala, Ed General, Richel Umel, Rex Ortega, Jeoffrey Maitem, Edwin Fernandez and Nash Maulana, Inquirer Mindanao