MATALAM, North Cotabato ? The force of the blast was so powerful it decapitated two passengers on the bus.
A bomb detonated by cell phone ripped through a de luxe passenger bus of Rural Transit Inc. Thursday, killing 10 people and wounding at least 30 others in an attack military authorities blamed on an extortion gang.
Students were among the dead.
The bombing occurred an hour after a bomb scare swept through the Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE) in Makati City, disrupting trading for a few hours.
There was nothing to indicate the two incidents were related, officials said.
The bus was traveling with more than 50 passengers when the explosion shook the rear part of the vehicle from the overhead compartment, according to the Central Mindanao regional police director, Chief Supt. Gil Meneses.
Chief Supt. Felicisimo Khu, chief of the Directorate for Integrated Police Operations for Western Mindanao, said the IED (improvised explosive device) that went off was fashioned from a mortar cartridge and triggered by a mobile phone.
This appeared to dispute the military claim that Thursday?s explosion could have been the work of extortionists, Khu said.
?The bus management told us they have not received any extortion threat from any group operating in Mindanao,? he said.
Al-Khobar is the most notorious of the region?s extortion gangs, and authorities say it is made up of criminals and former Muslim rebels who have been blamed for attacking business establishments that refused to pay their ransom demands, according to The Associated Press. The group is on a US list of terrorist organizations.
Troops last year captured a suspected Al-Khobar leader, Mokasid Dilna, who allegedly trained with militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990s.
Military officials said Dilna provided refuge to foreign militants and acted as a link with two local Muslim groups?the violent Abu Sayyaf and the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been engaged in peace talks with the government.
Bus driver Arlan Tadeo said he was driving along a tree-lined road on a highway in the village of Dalapitan here when the explosion occurred at about 10:45 a.m.
?I clung to the wheel and managed to maneuver the bus safely to the edge (of the road),? he said.
Tadeo was unhurt but the scene at the back of the bus horrified him, especially when he saw that the head of one of the men in the back of the vehicle had been blown off.
?The sight was harrowing,? Tadeo said. ?His head was gone instantly after the loud explosion.?
Screams for help
Tadeo said he parked the bus by the roadside and looked in the mirror to see headless bodies and passengers raising their bloody arms as they screamed for help.
He said police and military forces arrived in about 10 minutes and organized local residents to help take the victims to hospitals.
The bomb went off on a highway just outside Matalam town in a lightly populated farming area, largely planted with sugar cane.
The conductor, Bryan Galagas, 29, was at the tail-end of the vehicle handing out tickets when the blast occurred. He was among those killed, police said.
Senior Supt. Cornelio Salinas, the police chief of North Cotabato, confirmed two of those killed were decapitated. He said he saw two headless bodies on the bus.
?We saw it when we accompanied the Scene of the Crime Operatives team inside the bus,? Salinas told the Inquirer by phone.
Officials said the blast came from a powerful improvised explosive device (IED) which went off while the bus was traveling along the national highway.
Senior Insp. Joyce Birrey, the spokesperson of the North Cotabato Police Command, identified the two men who were decapitated as Mark Lester Feri and Romil Española.
Feri and Española were third year students at the University of Southern Mindanao (USM), police said.
No one has claimed responsibility for the blast but Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang, the spokesperson of the military?s Eastern Mindanao Command based in Davao City, said extortionists could have set off the bomb.
?The bus company has long been receiving extortion letters from armed groups operating in the region,? Cabangbang said.
In earlier attacks on bus companies operating in Central and Southern Mindanao, dozens of people were killed or injured.
The Abu Sofia gang and the Al-Khobar, both linked to the Abu Sayyaf bandit group, have been blamed for the previous attacks.
Birrey said the bomb was placed on the third seat of the rear portion of the bus with body number 2284.
Three male passengers
Birrey said the bus left Cagayan de Oro City at dawn and was on its way for the usually eight-hour travel to Tacurong City in Sultan Kudarat.
Tadeo said three male passengers boarded the bus along the highway in Kabacan town, but disembarked when the bus reached the Poblacion of Matalam town.
Minutes later, as the bus was heading toward Barangay Dalapitan, on the boundary of M?lang and Matalam towns, the bomb exploded.
Russel Estrada, one of the bus passengers, said she was shocked on hearing the explosion.
?I was resting on my seat when I heard the loud explosion. I thought it was just the bus tire that exploded. I was shocked when I saw bloodied passengers lying on the floor,? Estrada said.
MILF not involved
Mohagher Iqbal, the chief negotiator for the MILF, said his group had no involvement in Thursday?s bombing.
?We have forces there, but not along the highway,? he told The Associated Press. ?We will never get involved in matters like that.?
He said the bombing could be a result of business rivalry or extortion.
Get the bombers
President Benigno Aquino III condoled with the families of the victims of the bus blast and said he had directed authorities to ensure that they get the killers.
Mr. Aquino said there were ?no indicators? to show that the bus bombing and the PSE bomb scare were connected.
?(Authorities) are also exploring the angle of extortion,? Mr. Aquino told reporters. ?These particular buses are subject to a lot of extortion attempts ? so we will not rule that out.?
But he said the investigators were not focusing on just one angle.
Also on the list of fatalities released by Birrey were: Bryan Galagas, conductor; Tanting Usop Dalidan, a student of USM and resident of Datu Paglas, Maguindanao; Lita Manzano of Lambayong, Sultan Kudarat; Noriela Akmad, 21, Kabacan, North Cotabato; Genevieve Sibonga, 37, Pontevedra, Antipas; Lolita Galido, 64, Barangay Tubog, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato.
Two fatalities were still unidentified and remained at Torreda Funeral Homes. Reports from Carlo C. Agamon, Edwin O. Fernandez, Rosa May de Guzman-Maitem, Williamor Magbanua, Inquirer Mindanao; Christine O. Avendaño, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse