Barge blast death toll rises to 44
- by billo, wirereports () - February 27, 2000 - 12:00am

The death toll in a spate of bombings in Mindanao rose to 44 yesterday as more bodies were recovered from bus wreckage and those seriously injured died in hospitals, officials said.

Brig. Gen. Narciso Abaya, commander of the Army's 1st Infantry Division, immediately blamed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) for the attacks.

But Armed Forces chief Gen. Angelo Reyes said the bombings could be the handiwork of extortionists.

President Estrada, who was in General Santos City to attend a food congress yesterday, ordered the military to arrest the suspects.

At least 39 of the dead were in buses and other vehicles traveling on a ferry where two bombs exploded minutes before it was to dock last Friday in Ozamis City, said the city's mayor, Benjamin Fuentes.

Five others were killed when a third bomb ripped through another bus at about the same time in Rizal in nearby Zamboanga del Norte, according to the Agence France Press.

No other details were immediately available.

In Cagayan de Oro City, a mortar with a digital timer was discovered late Friday inside a bag under a seat of a bus that was preparing to leave for Ozamis City.

The military said all of the buses involved belonged to the Super Five bus company, which had been the target of terrorist attacks since last month.

In January, one of its buses was also seized and burned by suspected Muslim separatists in Lanao del Norte, apparently to avenge the death of a rebel commander's son who died after being hit by one of the company's buses last year.

Gen. Abaya said explosives rigged on two buses aboard the ferry Our Lady of Mediatrix went off shortly before it was to dock at the port of Ozamis, killing several instantly and wounding dozens.

Officials said at last count 39 people had died, including some overnight in a hospital, and 35 others were being treated for injuries.

Lt. Jose Isaga of the Philippine Coast Guard said most of the casualties sustained shrapnel or burn injuries but three drowned when they fell into the water.

Officials in the area contacted yesterday afternoon said 56 passengers and crew -- some of whom leapt into the water to escape the flames -- had been rescued overnight but five were still missing.

Meanwhile, a military spokesman said that bomb experts foiled another attempted attack aboard a bus in Cagayan de Oro City.

Bomb experts from the Army disarmed a device rigged to explode at 3 p.m. last Friday.

Maj. Salih Indanan said the bomb was similar to the one allegedly set off by Muslim separatists inside a grocery store two weeks earlier in Kabacan town in North Cotabato, killing a pregnant woman and injuring 14 other people.

Abaya said he suspected that MILF rebels were behind the attack. The charge was rejected by the MILF.

"Previous bus bombings have been largely blamed on the MILF. The group has been extorting money from bus firms in the area," Abaya told the AFP.

But MILF spokesman Mohaqer Iqbal on Friday denied the rebel group was behind the attack.

"It appears that we are the favorite whipping boy of the military everytime there is terrorist activity involving civilians," he told AFP.

"What will we get from that (bombing) if ever? That is not a revolutionary act. That is a terroristic act," he said.

He described the bombing as an "unfortunate incident that we are condemning," adding that the MILF has no units in Kolambugan, Lanao del Norte.

"I urge the military to look at the extortion angle and manipulation by some sectors to create a volatile situation in Mindanao to justify the deployment of more soldiers," Iqbal said.

Abaya, however, said the MILF will never publicly admit their involvement and it was unclear how the attack would affect the second round of formal peace talks set for March 1 and 2.

"It's very hard to say if this will affect the peace talks and the peace process. But these people always deny their involvement in terrorism in the south," said Abaya, who ordered the deployment of a battalion of soldiers to Kolambugan.

Fierce fighting in the southern province of Maguindanao two weeks ago, when the military captured a key MILF base, led to the cancellation of peace talks scheduled for Feb. 21.

Both sides agreed this week to resume the negotiations next month. They also agreed to an indefinite ceasefire that would start on Monday.

Elsewhere, suspected communist guerrillas set fire to a bus before dawn yesterday, said Indanan.

Three New People's Army rebels flagged down the vehicle in the village of Marilog near Davao City, ordered its occupants out and set it ablaze.

The attacks came on the eve of President Estrada's visit to Mindanao.

Presidential Spokesman Fernando Barican said Mr. Estrada left as scheduled yesterday for the five-day swing through five cities in Mindanao. --

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