COTABATO CITY—Military and police officials are looking at an Islamic State-inspired group as possibly behind the blast that killed two people and injured more than 30 others outside a shopping mall here on New Year’s Eve.
Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said the attack was apparently a retaliation for his unit’s offensive against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and a group that had broken away from it, the Daulah Islamiyah.
Both groups have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) jihadi group in Iraq and Syria.
A homemade bomb packed with cut nails and ball bearings went off in front of the baggage counter at the entrance to South Seas Mall along Don Rufino Alonzo Avenue at 1:59 p.m. on Monday, killing the driver of a member of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) and a woman who was about to enter the shopping mall.
The fatalities were identified on Tuesday as Jonathan Tasic Torribiano, 39, driver of BTC Commissioner Melanio Ulama, and Miriam Wahab Kali, 31, of Barangay Poblacion 2, Cotabato City.
Malacañang vowed that justice would be served.
“We empathize with the families, relatives and friends of those who suffered from this unhappy occurrence. To them, we vow that we will get to the bottom of this at the soonest possible time,” presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a statement.
The bomb went off as people were doing last-minute shopping for the traditional New Year celebrations.
Officials said on Tuesday that 34 other people were injured in the blast. Three of them were in critical condition, they said.
Scattered debris, including items sold for New Year’s Eve revelry such as horns made of cardboard and plastic, gifts and a bloody slipper lay at the shopping mall’s entrance.
Windows of surrounding buildings were shattered by the blast.
Sobejana said a man was seen carrying a box that he left in front of the baggage counter of the shopping mall. It exploded a few seconds later.
The explosion prompted police to search the shopping mall, leading to the discovery of another bomb, which they destroyed, said Chief Insp. Rowell Zafra, spokesperson for the local police.
Sobejana said the bomb that went off had the signature of the Daulah Islamiyah.
He said the military had some “leads” in the attack but did not elaborate.
Abu Misry Mama, spokesperson for the BIFF and the Daulah Islamiyah, said on Tuesday that neither group had a hand in the blast.
Senior Supt. Rolly Octavio, city police director, said investigators were reviewing images captured by security cameras at the shopping mall for leads.
Octavio said a security camera captured the image of the man who left the second bomb at the shopping mall’s baggage counter.
He said bomb experts recovered about a kilo of cut nails, a plastic container with traces of black powder, and cell-phone parts.
Cotabato City Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi on Tuesday claimed the authorities had “information about the suspects,” but had yet to determine the motive for the attack.
Sayadi said the city had been put on lockdown, with a “no ID, no entry” policy being enforced at checkpoints and all points of exit and entry into the city.
A militant Moro group rejected the military’s theory.
Jerome Succor Aba, a spokesperson for Suara Bangsamoro, said the rush to accuse IS-inspired militants even before an investigation could be carried out would justify a military takeover of Cotabato City and other Muslim-majority areas in Mindanao as residents prepared for a plebiscite to ratify the proposed charter of a new Muslim autonomous region on the island.
The plebiscite for the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which would establish the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, is set for Jan. 21 and Feb. 6.
Aba said a military takeover could limit the campaign for the plebiscite or even lead to the cancellation of the vote for security reasons.
Lt. Gen. Benjamin Madrigal, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, condemned the bombing and gave assurance of full military cooperation with the Philippine National Police in the investigation of the attack.
Responding to criticism that the blast happened despite the extension of martial law in Mindanao for another year, Col. Noel Detoyato, chief of the AFP public affairs office, said, “It could have been worse without martial law.”
President Duterte placed Mindanao under martial law in May 2017 to crush IS-inspired local terrorists who seized Marawi City in Lanao del Sur province.
Congress has extended military rule on the island three times on the President’s request, the latest up to Dec. 31, 2019.
Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao called the perpetrators of the explosion “evil,” and urged residents of the region to pray for the people of Cotabato City.
“Evil acts like this will be punished in this world and the next, while all good deeds will be rewarded,” Hataman said.
Murad Ebrahim, chief of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has signed a peace agreement with the government and is leading the campaign for the ratification of the proposed Bangsamoro charter, also condemned the attack, describing it as “an act of cowardice, inhuman and atrocious.” —WITH REPORTS FROM JEANNETTE I. ANDRADE, MART SAMBALUD, JEOFFREY MAITEM, JULIE M. AURELIO AND AFP