MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Suspected Islamic militants set off bombs in a southern Philippine town on Monday, killing at least 11 soldiers and civilians despite extra tight security because of threats of suicide attacks by Islamic State group-aligned rebels, officials said.
Nearly 40 soldiers, police and civilians were wounded in the attacks, military and police officials said.
Regional military commander Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan said at least five soldiers and four civilians were killed in the first attack, when a bomb attached to a motorcycle exploded at noon near two parked army trucks in front of a grocery store and computer shop in Jolo town in Sulu province.
“It was a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device which exploded while our soldiers were on a marketing run,” Vinluan told reporters.
A second blast nearby, apparently from a female suicide attacker, occurred about an hour later and killed the bomber and a soldier and wounded several others, a military report said. It said the suspected bomber walked out of a snack shop, approached soldiers who were securing a Roman Catholic cathedral and “suddenly blew herself up.”
Snipers were deployed in the area to guard against more bombers as the victims were carried to an ambulance.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ronald Mateo said a seventh soldier was also killed in the bombings but did not provide further details.
A third unexploded bomb was reportedly found in a public market. Jolo was immediately placed in a security lockdown by troops and police.
The bombings were the deadliest attack in the country this year and were staged as the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. Presidential spokesman Harry Roque condemned the bombings “in the strongest possible terms.”
Initial pictures seen by The Associated Press showed soldiers carrying a man from the scene of the explosion near an army truck while another victim lay on the road. The wreckage of a motorcycle and body parts were seen on the road.
The first bombing was carried out near a town plaza and the cathedral in the predominantly Muslim province. The country’s southern region is home to minority Muslims in the largely Roman Catholic nation and has been the scene of decades of Muslim separatist unrest, particularly in remote island provinces such as Jolo.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but the military blamed an Abu Sayyaf militant commander, Mundi Sawadjaan.
Military officials said last week that Sawadjaan had plotted bombings in Sulu using two female suicide attackers. Army troops were carrying out a covert operation to locate and capture Sawadjaan and the suicide bombers in June when four army personnel were stopped at a Jolo police checkpoint and later shot to death by a group of policemen.
The army angrily described the killings as a rub out and demanded murder charges be filed immediately against nine policemen. Police officials, however, say it may have been a mistaken encounter between the army and police forces.
The military has been waging a monthslong offensive against the Abu Sayyaf, a small but violent group aligned with the Islamic State group and listed by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist group for past bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings.
Its armed fighters have dwindled in number to a few hundred in recent years due to battle setbacks and surrenders, including a key commander, Abduljihad Susukan, who gave up to authorities two weeks ago after being wounded in battle.
Susukan has been blamed for kidnappings and beheadings of hostages, including foreign tourists. He reportedly surrendered through a Muslim rebel chief who has signed a peace deal and was cooperating with the government.
Military officials said they were not discounting the possibility that Monday’s bombings were staged partly in retaliation for the detention of Susukan, who is now in police custody and faces multiple murder and kidnapping charges.