At least 15 persons, including seven soldiers, were killed while 77 others were hurt after two explosions believed to be caused by a bomb placed inside a parked motorcycle and another detonated by a “foreign-looking” female suicide bomber rocked two separate places in Jolo, Sulu on Monday, the military and the police disclosed.
Major Gen. Corleto Vinluan, commander of Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom), said five soldiers and four civilians were initially killed in the first explosion.
Meanwhile, a soldier perished in the second explosion while he was about to accost a foreign-looking woman, who detonated a hand-held improvised explosive device (IED).
In an update as of 5:29 p.m., the WestMinCom said two more soldiers died in the grim attack.
Sonny Abing III, information officer of the Sulu Provincial Government, the among the fatalities were seven members of the Philippine Army, six civilians and a member of the police’s elite Special Action Force (SAF).
He said a total of 21 Army troopers, three SAF commandos, and three members of the Sulu Provincial Police Office were injured along with 48 civilians.
PNP chief Gen. Archie Francisco Gamboa said the first explosion occurred at 11:53 a.m. in front of a grocery store in Barangay Walled City, a business district in Jolo
The target appeared to be the soldiers since the bomb-packed motorcycle was parked and detonated near a military truck where the Army troopers from the 21st Infantry Battalion were standing as part of the target-hardening measures.
Four of the soldiers died on the spot while 17 others were injured as a result of the first powerful blast as shown by the post-explosion photos from the local police wherein some of the victims’ body parts looked mangled.
Asked for comment, Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, spokesman of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said :
“The 11th Infantry Division and the Joint Task Force Sulu are on high alert following this incident. We advise the public to stay calm but be vigilant to monitor and report any suspicious persons or items or unusual activities in the area.”
The two explosions occurred while security forces are still on the hot pursuit on suspected local and foreign terrorists, including those engage in suicide bombing, responsible for the bombing on Jolo Cathedral that left at least 20 people dead and more than 100 other churchgoers injured in January last year.
The same group is also being eyed in the twin bomb blasts that left eight people dead and more than 20 others injured in a suicide bombing in a military camp in Indanan town also in Sulu in June last year.
Captain Rex Payot, spokesperson of the Joint Task Force Sulu, said the soldiers were conducting a security operation to support local government officials who were on a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) response effort when the first explosion occurred in a town plaza on Selantes Street, Plaza Rizal in Barangay Walled City.
Payot said the first blast occurred when an IED planted on a motorcycle which was parked near a military truck suddenly went off at 11:53 a.m. The truck was carrying soldiers from the 21st Infantry Battalion (21IB).
“We are conducting a COVID-19 support response together with the local officials. Suddenly, nagkaroon ng explosion sa isang motorcycle na nakapark malapit sa M35 truck ng sundalo natin (Suddenly, there was an explosion on a motorcycle parked near our soldiers’ M35 truck),” he told the Manila Bulletin in a phone call.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Mateo, civil military operations officer of the 11th Infantry Division (11ID), said the second explosion occurred at 1 p.m. about 100 meters from the site of the first incident just as authorities were conducting a post-blast assessment.
Vinluan believes that the two explosions are “related.”
“Related siya. Isa lang ‘yan (These are related incidents),” he said.
Mateo said investigators are looking at the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) as the possible perpetrators of the attack.
“Ang ASG talaga ang tinitingnan kasi sila ang may kakayahan na mag-carryout ng ganoong klaseng pag-atake (We are looking at ASG because they are the only ones who have the capability to carry out an attack like that),” he said.
The motive behind the attack is yet to be determined although Mateo said among those being considered are the arrest of Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) sub-commander Anduljihad “Idang” Susukan last April 13.
He added that probers will also investigate whether the attack was connected to the suicide bombers being tracked by four Army intelligence operatives who were slain by nine cops in Jolo last June 29.
“Sa ngayon nag-lockdown na kami dito sa Jolo, then tuloy-tuloy ang security operations namin,” Mateo said.
The site of the explosions was near the Mt. Carmel Cathedral which was the site of a twin bombing in Jolo on January 27, 2019, killing 23 people and injuring over 100 others.