As another blast rocks central Mindanao: Sayyaf, JI eyed in Cotabato bombing
- John Unson And James Mananghaya () - October 12, 2006 - 12:00am
COTABATO CITY — A powerful explosion rocked the city’s main commercial district before noon yesterday, marking the third bomb attack in central Mindanao since Tuesday.

No one was reported killed or injured in the explosion but traders decided to close shop for the day despite assurances from local authorities that they have the situation under control. The first two bomb attacks killed six people and wounded many others.

Officials declared that the explosive devices used in the bombings all bore the hallmark of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Abu Sayyaf terrorists.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon said the military is now focusing on JI and the Abu Sayyaf as the perpetrators of the bombings.

Initial reports said the latest explosion occurred in a store on Don Rufino Alonzo street, located 10 meters away from the busy SouthSeas shopping mall. Police said an 81-mm mortar shell, rigged with a timing device, was used in the attack.

City police chief Senior Superintendent Peraco Macacua said a saleslady noticed a man leave a suspicious package. She picked it up and threw it away before it went off. The bomb was said to be similar to the explosive device used in Makilala, North Cotabato that killed six people and wounded several others Tuesday night.

Security forces were placed on heightened alert as police and military bomb experts defused another explosive device in Makilala yesterday.

Army brigade commander Col. Ruperto Pabustan said the explosive device, two 81-mm mortar shells tied together with a cellular phone attached, was found stashed inside a bag, about 75 meters from the site of Tuesday’s explosion.

Pabustan said the cell phone attached to the bomb contained a text message in the Maguindanao dialect, apparently directed at the bombers, which read: "Where are you? You are the only ones who have not yet detonated (the bomb)."

He said the bomb was planted on Tuesday but had failed to explode.

Pabustan also said the explosive devices had the signature of the JI and Abu Sayyaf.

"We believe that the same people planted this bomb," he said. "Had it exploded last (Tuesday) night, we would’ve expected more casualties, more damage."

"We have not arrested anyone but we are really blaming JI for this," he said.

North Cotabato Gov. Emmanuel Piñol, however, claimed the explosives are similar to those used by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

According to Piñol, his sources revealed last Tuesday’s bombing in Makilala was the handiwork of MILF guerrillas, but failed to elaborate on the possible motive for the attack.

"I’m holding the MILF responsible for this atrocity. The bomb used was a known signature armament of the MILF," Piñol declared over radio dxND.

Piñol urged the government to reconsider its position in dealing with the MILF following the bombings.

Despite the Muslim guerrilla group’s peace initiative with the government, Piñol said the MILF is still giving refuge to JI militants.

Security officials said the bombs may have been linked to last week’s arrest of Istiada Binti Oemar Sovie, the wife of Dulmatin, one of Asia’s most wanted terror suspects for his alleged role in the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people.

Dulmatin and another Indonesian, Umar Patek, are believed to be hiding in the dense jungles of Jolo where they have been given refuge by Abu Sayyaf bandits.

Esperon noted that after the capture of Sovie last week, the bombing attacks followed.

"The Abu Sayyaf is our number one suspect, along with the JI. If you notice, the bombings occurred after we captured the wife of Dulmatin," he said.

Esperon said the intelligence reports indicated the bombings are part of retaliatory attacks following the capture of Sovie.

Esperon also did not rule out MILF hardliners in the bombing spree.

He said there are indications that some former MILF guerrillas opposed to the peace talks with the government are connected to the attacks.

The MILF has denied any terror links, but there were concerns some guerrilla elements may be cooperating with the JI militants.

President Arroyo said the government "will make sure the perpetrators are hunted down and brought to justice."

She also instructed officials to contact the MILF, to assist in the identification and arrest of the bombers.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita and National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, in separate interviews, said the attacks were apparently meant to divert attention from the ongoing military offensive in Sulu against the Abu Sayyaf in the mission to capture the two JI militants.
‘Bombing spree’
Military sources disclosed some rogue MILF guerrillas are working with JI militants "on a bombing spree" to avenge the capture of Dulmatin’s wife.

This prompted authorities to put some key areas in Mindanao under high alert, intelligence officials said.

"There would be more bombings in the next few days. These terrorists are up and about again after a lull from such attacks for a time," one intelligence official warned.

The official revealed the cities of General Santos and Davao are being lined up for attacks by the group after yesterday’s bombing of Cotabato City.

He said the joint terror cell was actually gearing up to stage further bomb attacks but was forced to lie low for the meantime due to funding problems.

"They never left at all nor they were disbanded. And now, they have started again on their ‘bombing spree’ after they have solved part of their problem on finances," the official said.

Other sources also disclosed MILF hardliners led by Umbra Cato was behind the attack.

Cato ordered his team led by Basit Usman of the MILF’s Special Operations Group to plant the explosive in a public market in Tacurong last Tuesday, sources said.

North Cotabato provincial police director Senior Superintendent Federico Dulay said the intelligence reports they have received earlier virtually confirmed their fears.

Army’s 6th Division regional spokesman Col. Julieto Ando confirmed six people were killed and 29 others were injured in Makilala last Tuesday.

"We are pursuing some of the personalities who could be behind the attack," Ando said but declined to say if the JI-Abu Sayyaf-MILF were involved in the attacks.

Makilala Mayor Onofre Respicio earlier reported 12 people were initially killed in the attack but later clarified there were only six casualties.

Respicio admitted rescue officials apparently got mixed up by the incident and the sheer number of wounded being rushed to hospital.

"Some of the wounded were moved from one hospital to another so there was no immediate synchronization of our rescue efforts so we got mixed up," Respicio explained.

"We are correcting previous announcements that 12 people were killed in the bombing," he said.

Respicio identified the fatalities as Geralyn Parba, Rogelia Tajan-tajan, Romeo Pamugas, Honey Gomez, Wilfredo Singson, and Nelson Torralba.
Further warnings
Authorities have implemented tighter security measures, bracing for another bombing attack while diplomatic missions in the Philippines issued separate advisories warning their citizens against traveling to Mindanao.

Last Tuesday’s bombing in Makilala came hours after the US and Australia warned of an imminent terror attack in central Mindanao.

The British and Japanese embassies also issued warnings against travelto southern Philippines.

"We advise against all travel to Mindanao. We believe that terrorists are in the final stages of planning further attacks," the British advisory said.

Japan also echoed the US and Australian governments’ travel advisories to avoid Mindanao.

Canada also last night issued a travel warning, advising Canadians against travelling to Sulu, Zamboaga peninsula and western and southwestern Mindanao for fear of further attacks.

"Attacks could occur at anytime, anywhere in the Philippines," the Canadian embassy said.

Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Oscar Calderon ordered a high alert on Mindanao and Metro Manila.

"Our foremost concern is the safety and security of the people in these areas. At the same time, we also want to identify and arrest the perpetrators by restricting their movement to other areas and mobilizing our local intelligence network," Calderon said.

He added police investigators are now looking into the possibility that the bombings were also meant to divert the ongoing military offensives against the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu.

Calderon directed the Philippine Bomb Data Center to assist in the investigation to establish the "signature" of the explosive devices used in the attacks.

On the travel advisories issued by the four embassies, PNP spokesman Senior Superintendent Samuel Pagdilao explained these are standard precautionary measures taken by foreign governments borne out of their inherent obligation to protect their citizens. -With Roel Pareño, Pia Lee-Brago, Edith Regalado, Paolo Romero, Jaime Laude, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Ramil Bajo, Rainier Allan Ronda, Michael Punongbayan, AP, AFP

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