DILG chief Eduardo Año: 'Indonesian suicide bombers behind attack'

Roel Pareño - The Philippine Star
DILG chief Eduardo Año: 'Indonesian suicide bombers behind attack'
Citing information provided by witnesses, Año said the Abu Sayyaf merely guided the couple, specifically in surveillance work and in gaining access to the cathedral.
AFP WestMinCom Photo / File

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines — The pair of suicide bombers that President Duterte had tagged as responsible for the Jolo cathedral blast were Indonesians, Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año said yesterday.

Citing information provided by witnesses, Año said the Abu Sayyaf merely guided the couple, specifically in surveillance work and in gaining access to the cathedral.

Año stressed he did not see any connection between the Jolo blast and the Zamboanga grenade attack that followed a few days later.

He said the Jolo bombing was apparently intended to ignite a religious war and inspire recruits.

Authorities said DNA testing is being readied on body parts that have remained unclaimed and believed to be those of the bombers.

Sulu Provincial Police Office director Senior Supt. Pablo Labra II said witnesses reported seeing a female stranger enter the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral minutes before the explosion. Labra said they have gathered affidavits of 36 witnesses.

Labra said the woman, described as thin and about 5’2” to 5’3” tall, appeared jittery as she entered the church carrying a backpack that she concealed with her dark grey hooded jacket. The witnesses claimed she sat in the pew or right on the spot where the first bomb detonated.

He said some parishioners easily noticed the woman, as everyone inside the church practically knew each other.

Labra said another witness saw what appeared to be a severed woman’s foot with pieces of cloth that matched the dress she was reportedly wearing when last seen.

He said it was also unlikely the mutilated limbs belonged to the victims, as the remains of the fatalities had already been accounted for and claimed by relatives and loved ones.

“The investigators interviewed and questioned the victims’ families if the cadavers of their loved ones missed a limb and they said none – even those victims whose remains were dismembered by the blast,” Labra said.

The police official confirmed they have recovered at least two pairs of feet – that of a male and female – corroborating the information revealed by the President about a tandem of suicide bombers.

“As far as the blast inside, we can say it indicated there was this suicide bomber and the probability the woman who was seated at the blast spot that was not recognized could be the one. But we have to investigate thoroughly,” Labra said.

It was not clear yet, however, if the blast outside the church was also set off by another suicide bomber.

Third suspect?

Labra said that while the male suspect was not seen inside the church, investigators validated information a suspicious-looking couple entered the building.

“We are not concluding but these are indications there may be other persons. This would help us in our investigation to determine if they were the ones who exploded themselves,” Labra added.

National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) forensic experts also recovered a clump of hair, cranial nerve, a portion of the spinal column at the choir section on the second floor of the cathedral, or just above the spot where the first bomb exploded.

Philippine National Police (PNP) spokesman Senior Supt. Bernard Banac said “all witness accounts and physical evidences” are pointing to a suicide bombing scenario.

“Actually, DNA testing is still being done. So we are just waiting now for the results to determine that indeed, the body parts came from one or two persons that may lead to the conclusion that the attack was a suicide bombing,” he said in a message sent to reporters.

He also said the number of fatalities rose to 22 after one of the wounded, 68-year-old Thelma Villanueva, died of her injuries on Thursday at the Zamboanga City Medical Center.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also said he was convinced the Jolo blasts were the work of suicide bombers.

He said only an attacker intent on carrying out his or her terror plan could have succeeded on a target heavily guarded like the Jolo cathedral.

“Those entering were screened. All bags and belongings were checked. The bombs could have been strapped to the body of the bomber and escaped the attention of the soldiers doing the screening,” he said.

Moreover, the presence of body parts strewn all over the place was an indication suicide bombers were responsible.

“According to the forensic investigators of the PNP, these body parts could belong to two persons – one inside the church and one outside,” he said.

Not too fast

While investigators have begun exploring the suicide bombing angle, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said it would rather wait for the investigation to finish before making conclusions.

“As of now, we do not yet have conclusive findings that it was a case of suicide bombing, although the President has said that it is and there are some hints or indicators that it could be a case of suicide bombing,” military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, said.

He said that while President Duterte has access to different sources of information, an investigation will ultimately determine what really happened.

“We have not been ruling that out since the beginning, that it could be a case of suicide bombing but as of now, there’s nothing conclusive because investigations are still ongoing,” he stressed.

Opposition Liberal Party candidate Mar Roxas, meanwhile, said he supports Duterte’s order to “pulverize” the Abu Sayyaf.

He also said the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), once in effect, will inspire Muslims to seek peace and development and fight terror.

“We should really hunt terrorists. We should really use the government forces and the intelligence fund which amounts to billions of pesos,” he said.

“I’m sure even the BOL members or those who will become assembly members, would not want terrorism as this hinders the development in the region,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Vatican – through its Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples – has expressed its solidarity with the victims and families of the twin-bombings at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo, Sulu.

“With a deeply saddened heart, on behalf of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, I wish to express my sincere condolences to all those affected by the terrorist attacks, which took place at the Cathedral and have caused numerous deaths, injuries and damage,” said the Congregation’s prefect Archbishop Fernando Cardinal Filoni, in a letter to Fr. Romeo Saniel, the apostolic administrator of Jolo.

Filoni had served as apostolic nuncio to the Philippines from February 2006 to June 2007.

“At this time of deep sorrow, we join also with all the people of the Philippines in praying for hope, encouragement and guidance in the coming days, so that peace may be restored permanently by the help of God and through the goodwill of all concerned,” Filoni said.

Leaders of various Muslim communities in Negros and Panay expressed their full support for the anti-terrorism programs of the PNP, according to regional police spokesman Supt. Joem Malong.

Members of the United Muslim Federation in Western Visayas led by Hadji Muamar Faisal Arumpac met with the PNP on Thursday at Camp Martin Delgado in Iloilo City where he condemned the Jolo bombings.  – With  Romina Cabrera, Gilbert Bayoran, Evelyn Macairan, Helen Flores, Michael Punongbayan

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