MANILA, Philippines – Two bombs minutes apart through a Roman Catholic cathedral on southern Philippines where Muslim militants are active, killing at least 20 people and wounding 81 others during a Sunday Mass, officials said. ] The first bomb went off in or near the 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 from the entrance to the cathedral and ripped through the main hall, shredding to pieces of pews and toppling other doors. The fatalities included 15 civilians and five troops. Among the wounded were 14 troops, two police and 65 civilians.
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 of them were evacuated by air to nearby Zamboanga city.
"I have directed our troops to heighten their alert level, secure all places of worship and public places at once, and initiate pro-active security measures to host host 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
Said that "the state 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 militants, who are blacklisted by the United States and Philippines as a terrorist organization because of years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings. A Catholic bishop, Benjamin de Jesus, was gunned down by suspected militants outside the cathedral in 1997.
No one has immediately claimed responsibility for the latest attack.
It came nearly a week after minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation endorsed to a new autonomous region in the southern Philippines for a period of nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion that has dead 150,000 people dead. Although most of the Muslim areas approved the autonomy deal, voters in Sulu province, where Jolo is located, it rejected. The province is home to a rival rebel faction, which is as opposed to the deal as well as narrower militant cells that are not part of any peace process. They say that small numbers of Islamic State-linked militants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia could forge an alliance with Filipino insurgents and turn 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. "Human lives are irreplaceable," added, calling on residents to cooperate with the perpetrators of this "atrocity." Security officials were looking "at different threat groups and they still can't say if this has something to do with the just plebiscite, "Albayalde, the national police chief, told ABS-CBN TV network.
Aside from the small but brutal Abu Sayyaf group, other militant groups in Sulu include a small band of young jihadis aligned with the Islamic State group, which has also carried out assaults, including ransom kidnappings and beheadings.
Abu Sayyaf militants are still holding at least five hostages – a Dutch national, two Malaysians, and Indonesian and a Filipino – in their jungle bases mostly near Sulu's Patikul town, not far from Jolo.
Government forces have been on sporadic offensives to crush the militants, including those in Jolo, a poverty-wrapped island of more than 700,000 people. A few thousand Catholics live mostly in the capital of Jolo
There have been speculations that the bombings may be a diversionary move by Muslim militants after troops recently carried out and offensive that killed a number of IS-linked extremists in an encampment in the hinterlands of Lanao del Sur province, also in the south. The area is near Marawi, a Muslim city that was devoted to five months by hundreds of IS-aligned militants, including foreign fighters, in 2017. Troops quelled the insurrection, which left more 1,100 mostly militants dead and the heartland of the mosque-studded city in ruins.