Duterte says Abu Sayyaf behind Jolo blasts
President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday night said the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group was behind the twin blasts at a Catholic church in Jolo, Sulu province, that killed more than 20 people and wounded nearly 100 others on Sunday and that the attack was carried out by two suicide bombers.
Speaking to reporters in Malabon City, the President said he was sure the Abu Sayyaf was responsible for the attack on the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Sunday morning.
“There is no one else. Nobody but nobody can perpetuate that kind of terrorism thereabout in that place. I have no doubt. That is what the military told me and that is what the police relayed to me,” the President said.
Couple carried out attack
The President said a couple carried out the attack.
The wife detonated her bomb inside the cathedral and the husband set off his outside the church, he said.
Asked whether the couple were foreigners, the President said the reports were “conflicting.”
“They said it’s Indonesian. Others say from the looks of it, it was … nothing could be found. No part of the body… Because it exploded. It’s really terrorism and it’s suicide bombing — unless it was placed there,” the President said.
Told that the military had ruled out suicide bombing in the attack and the explosions were remotely triggered, the President said: “Yes, that’s a possibility. But the eyewitnesses said it’s the other way around. [The suicide bombers] probably had companions or support system.”
Earlier on Tuesday, the military ruled out suicide bombing in the Jolo blasts, belying the claim of the Islamic State (IS) jihadi group in Iraq and Syria that it was responsible for the attack.
A 14-year-old girl wounded in the explosion in the church died in hospital on Monday, bringing to 21 the death toll from the attack that investigators described as the work of terrorists.
Authorities expected the death toll to rise as other blast victims were battling for their lives in various hospitals.
IS claimed on its news site Amaq on Sunday that two suicide bombers carried out the attack, killing more than 120 people.
But Col. Noel Detoyato, chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ public affairs office, said on Tuesday that two survivors had spoken about seeing a woman leaving a bag in a pew in the fifth row from the back of the nave then hurriedly getting out of the church.
“That is the method of deployment [of the bomb] so it’s not a suicide bombing,” Detoyato told reporters at a news conference at the military’s headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.
The Philippine National Police, however, has not dropped the suicide bombing angle, according to Interior Secretary Eduardo Año.
“But we cannot know for sure until we complete the interview of survivors and gather sufficient information,” Año said in a statement on Tuesday.
Año, however, dismissed the IS claim of responsibility, saying local terrorist groups were likely behind Sunday’s attack.
Detoyato cited intelligence from as early as August last year that indicated the bandit group Abu Sayyaf had plans to bomb Catholic churches in Jolo, Basilan and Zamboanga.
Priests at the Mount Carmel cathedral in Jolo had also received threats, Detoyato said.
The cathedral and its surroundings had been under tight security since August, he said, but this was relaxed on Sunday on a request from some businesses in the area.
Detoyato explained that the tight security had hurt businesses in the area and that some of the traders had asked for an easing of the security on Sundays, when people flocked to the church, so they could do better business.
The lowering of the guard enabled the carrier of the first bomb to get past the security perimeter and a possible lapse in security at the cathedral, according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, enabled the carrier to enter the church.
The first blast ripped through the nave as Mass was being celebrated, shattering pews and glass windows, and hurling bodies and body parts around.
As people stampeded out of the church and government forces rushed in, the second bomb, located somewhere in the compound, went off, causing more deaths and injuries and flinging human remains and debris across the square in front of the cathedral.
“We will never know how the bombers got in or near the church, as the soldiers guarding the main door all died,” Lorenzana said in a message to reporters.
“Other soldiers who were getting in to rescue the victims of the first explosion inside the church were also hit by the second bomb,” he said.
Later on Tuesday, Lorenzana said the first bomb was left by a woman in a pew inside the church, agreeing with Detoyato’s account.
But the second bomb, which exploded at the entrance to the church, may have been set off by a suicide bomber, “as indicated by body parts strewn all over,” Lorenzana said.
He said police investigators were trying to establish the identity of the second bomber.
Detoyato had a different take on the second bomb.
He said it was not left in the utility box of a parked motorcycle, as earlier reported, because the area in front of the cathedral was a no-parking zone.
Detoyato said no one could have ascertained how the second bomb, which went off two minutes after the first one had exploded, had been placed outside the church because commotion broke out after the first explosion.
The military is looking into the possible involvement of the Ajang-Ajang, an Abu Sayyaf subgroup composed of men in their 20s and 30s who run errands for the bandits in urban centers, after four teenagers were spotted by security cameras acting suspiciously in the church zone before and after the explosions.
Detoyato said the teenagers were persons of interest to investigators and that they had been identified, but he did not disclose their identities.
Col. Gerry Besana, spokesperson for the AFP Western Mindanao Command, said on Tuesday the military was hunting a bomb maker known only as Kamah, the man seen by security cameras riding a motorcycle in the church zone before the explosions on Sunday. —With reports from Jaymee T. Gamil and Julie Alipala
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