MANILA, Philippines—Two bombs tore through a Roman Catholic cathedral on a southern Philippine island where extremists are active, killing at least 27 people and wounding more than 70 during a Sunday Mass, officials said.
The blast came six days after a local plebiscite on the formation of a new autonomous region that came out of a peace agreement between the government and Filipino Muslims returned an overwhelming “yes” vote.
The first bomb went off in or near the Jolo cathedral in the provincial capital, followed by a second blast outside the compound as government forces were responding to the attack, security officials said. The blasts blew away the entrance to the cathedral and ripped through the main hall, shredding to pieces the pews and toppling other doors.
Police said at least 27 people died and 77 were wounded. The dead included 20 civilians and seven soldiers, said Chief Superintendent Graciano Mijares, police director for ARMM.
Photos showed debris and bodies lying on a busy street outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which has been hit by bombs in the past. Troops in armored carriers sealed off the main road leading to the church while vehicles transported the dead and wounded to the hospital. Some casualties were evacuated by air to nearby Zamboanga city.
“I have directed our troops to heighten their alert level, secure all places of worships and public places at once, and initiate pro-active security measures to thwart hostile plans,” said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in a statement.
“We will pursue to the ends of the earth the ruthless perpetrators behind this dastardly crime until every killer is brought to justice and put behind bars. The law will give them no mercy,” the office of President Rodrigo Duterte said in Manila.
It said that “the enemies of the state boldly challenged the government’s capability to secure the safety of citizens in that region. The (Armed Forces of the Philippines) will rise to the challenge and crush these godless criminals.”
Jolo island has long been troubled by the presence of Abu Sayyaf extremists, also known as ISIS-Philippines Province, who are blacklisted by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist organization because of years of bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings. A Catholic bishop, Benjamin de Jesus, was gunned down by suspected extremists outside the cathedral in 1997.
No one has immediately claimed responsibility for the latest attack.
It came nearly a week after locals endorsed the formation of the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region to replace ARMM in Mindanao in a plebiscite. The Bangsamoro Organic Law came out of a peace agreement signed between the Duterte government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2014 to end nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion in Mindanao that has left 150,000 people dead.
STATEMENT BY ARMM GOVERNOR MUJIV HATAMAN ON THE RATIFICATION OF BANGSAMORO ORGANIC LAW On Friday night, the Commission…
While most of the population in the area approved the autonomy deal, voters in Sulu province, where Jolo is located, and Isabela City in Basilan were the only areas to reject it. The province is home to a rival Islamic faction to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that’s opposed to the peace deal as well as smaller terrorist cells that not part of any peace process.
Western governments have welcomed the autonomy pact, which Asian geopolitical expert Richard Javad Heydarian said in an article published by Al Jazeera is the Catholic-majority nation’s first step towards the creation of a Muslim-majority sub-state entity.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) January 25, 2019
However, there are concerns that small numbers of ISIS-linked extremists from the Middle East and Southeast Asia could forge an alliance with communist or other insurgents and turn the south into a breeding ground for extremists.
“This bomb attack was done in a place of peace and worship, and it comes at a time when we are preparing for another stage of the peace process in Mindanao,” said Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
ARMM Gov Mujiv Hataman's Statement on Jolo Cathedral bombingA bomb attack has just killed eight and injured several…
“Let us continue working for peace in the region. Violence should not deter us from continuing our work to establish a lasting peace in our homeland,” he said.
Security officials were looking “at different threat groups and they still can’t say if this has something to do with the just concluded plebiscite,” Albayalde, the national police chief, told ABS-CBN TV network.
Aside from the small Abu Sayyaf group, other extremist groups in Sulu include a small band of young jihadis aligned with the ISIS group, which has also carried out assaults, including ransom kidnappings and beheadings.
Abu Sayyaf extremists are still holding at least five hostages—a Dutch national, two Malaysians, an Indonesian and a Filipino—in their jungle bases mostly near Sulu’s Patikul town, not far from Jolo.
Government forces have pressed on sporadic offensives to crush the extremists, including those in Jolo, a poverty-wracked island of more than 700,000 people.
Aditional reporting by Epoch Times staff.