Twin blasts kill 15 in southern Philippine town

Two explosions rocked the insurgency-plagued town of Jolo in the southern Philippines yesterday, killing at least 15 people, including a suspected suicide bomber.

Initial reports said the first explosion happened at around noon.

The target seemed to have been a military truck parked in front of a commercial building near the Jolo town plaza. At least six soldiers and six civilians were killed in the first explosion, according to Major-General Corleto Vinluan, chief of the Western Mindanao Command.

A second blast happened at around 1pm at a nearby street, as investigators were already securing the first target. Citing unverified accounts, Maj-Gen Vinluan said a woman set off a bomb as a soldier approached her. Both the suspected bomber and the soldier died. A policeman was also killed.

Some 70 other soldiers, policemen and civilians were injured, Colonel Rafael Abundabar, a spokesman for the Western Mindanao Command, told online news site Rappler.

These attacks were reminiscent of twin suicide bombings that targeted a Catholic cathedral, also in Jolo, in January last year.

At least 23 were killed and more than 100 injured in that attack.

Military reports said an Indonesian couple blew themselves up minutes apart, one inside the cathedral and the other outside.

Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said of the latest attacks yesterday: “We strongly denounce the twin blasts that transpired in Jolo… today. Grave acts against humanity, such as these, have no place in our society, especially as we continue to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Maj-Gen Vinluan said yesterday’s attacks could be the work of the same faction of the Abu Sayyaf extremist group that was behind the cathedral bombings.

He named Mundi Sawadjaan, nephew of Abu Sayyaf chieftain Hatib Sawadjaan, as the main suspect in the latest attacks.

Hatib Sawadjaan, deemed an acting “emir” of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in the Philippines, is included in the United States’ list of global terrorists. His group was said to have aided the Indonesian couple behind the suicide bombings at the Jolo cathedral.

It was also behind an attack in June last year on an army counter-terrorism unit brigade in Indanan town, Sulu province, that killed eight people and injured 22.

This was the first officially confirmed case of a suicide bombing carried out by a Filipino – identified as Norman Lasuca – in the Philippines.

Hatib Sawadjaan also oversaw the 2012 kidnapping of Arab News’ Asia bureau chief Baker Atyani, who was working as a correspondent for television news channel Al-Arabiya.

Mundi Sawadjaan is believed to have taken over the reins from Hatib Sawadjaan, who is in his 60s and reported to have been seriously injured in a recent firefight with security forces.

Maj-Gen Vinluan said the perpetrators of yesterday’s attacks could be the two suspected bombers who were being tracked by four army intelligence officers in June. In circumstances that are still murky, the intelligence officers were gunned down by policemen enforcing routine quarantine restrictions.

Mundi Sawadjaan was said to be offering refuge to the two purported bombers. The military and police have traded accusations as investigators tried to sort out what really happened.

Maj-Gen Vinluan earlier told lawmakers at a congressional hearing it was possible that the policemen knew the two suspected bombers.

But Brigadier-General Manuel Abu, chief of the Bangsamoro police force, said one of the intelligence officers killed had ties to the illegal drug trade in Jolo.

Yesterday’s attacks came just weeks after the arrest of another Abu Sayyaf chieftain, Anduljihan Susukan, through the intervention of Moro National Liberation Front leader Nur Misuari. Susukan had been wanted in the Philippines and Malaysia for a series of kidnappings off the coast of Sabah from 2013.

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