By Martin Sadongdong
The deadly blasts at Jolo Cathedral in Sulu over the weekend were carried out by suicide bombers, a ranking Philippine National Police (PNP) official disclosed Friday.
Senior Superintendent Pablo Labra, provincial director of the Sulu Provincial Police Office, made the assessment citing accounts of at least 36 witnesses who survived the incident.
According to Labra, witnesses told police they noticed a woman and a man enter the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral during the Sunday morning mass on January 27.
The woman who was acting “suspiciously” was about 5’2″ to 5’3″ tall, slim, was wearing a dark-colored hoodie jacket and carried a backpack.
“Doon sa cathedral, kilala nila ang mga nagsisimba. Ayon sa mga witness, nakuha ang atensyon nila kasi hindi pamilyar itong babae. Nagsabi sila sa mga otoridad na suspicious ang actions dahil lingon ng lingon (The regular church goers know each other well. According to the witnesses, their attention was caught because the woman was not familiar.
They told authorities the woman was acting suspiciously and appeared to be looking for someone or something),” Labra said in a press briefing in Sulu.
Before the bomb exploded inside the church, Labra said the man left the woman. After the blast, the woman was nowhere to be found. A second bomb reportedly placed on the carrier of a motorcycle exploded as churchgoers rushed outside the cathedral.
Labra said the witnesses could not immediately tell the nationality of the man and the woman. However, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier claimed a Yemeni couple belonging to at least 40 terrorists being monitored by the military were behind the attack on the cathedral.
The cathedral has been the object of numerous attacks since 2010, the police earlier said. This is the reason why backpacks have been banned inside the church.
Labra admitted a lapse in security in explaining why the suspected suicide bomber managed to sneak with a backpack on.
Meanwhile, the death toll in the Jolo blast rose to 22 yesterday after the family of Thelma Villanueva, 68 who was critically wounded decided to remove her life support.
Investigators also gathered human parts from the blast site.
“Mayroong two pairs of feet na nandyan, one pair could be belonging to a lady, one pair could be belonging to a male person. Kailangan pa i-subject for forensic and DNA testing,” Labra said.
The Sulu police chief said a witness recognized the “clothing” on a pair of dismembered feet similar to that worn by the suspicious-looking woman.
“This witness told our investigators that the paa [feet] that he saw sa [in the] hospital could be belonging to the lady because of the clothing,” Labra said.
President Duterte was the first to state that the Jolo blast was the handiwork of suicide bombers.
Labra assured the results of their initial investigation were based on concrete pieces of evidence – such as the accounts of the witnesses, and are not merely riding on the President’s pronouncement just to show there is a progress in the investigation.
“The President has a wide access, a wide source of information. Sa atin naman as investigators, nagbe-base kami sa kung anong meron doon sa crime scene (On our part as investigators, we base everything on what we have in the crime scene),” he said. (With a report from Francis T. Wakefield)