Separatist militias are suspected to be responsible for two separate bombings that injured at least 40 people in the Philippines on Wednesday, December 28, according to President Rodrigo Duterte and security forces.
Investigators in North Cotabato say seven people were wounded by two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted along a stretch of highway in the town of Aleosan at approximately 10:20 p.m. (local time) on Wednesday.
Earlier that same evening, two remotely detonated bombs exploded at the Rizal Plaza in Hilongos, Leyte at about 9 p.m., injuring at least 35 others.
“We didn’t expect this,” Hilongos Mayor Alberto Villahermosa told CNN Philippines on Wednesday. “There was no bomb threat prior to this bombing.”
No individual or group has stepped forward to claim responsibility for either incident. However, initial reports from local residents received by police in Aleosan suggest the involvement of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in the North Cotabato attack, according to the Philstar, Inquirer, and other sources.
On Thursday, December 29, Duterte told reporters that “moro people” who were involved in the Philippines’ illicit narcotics trade were behind the attack in Leyte.
“It’s drug-related and they are having a turf war there,” Duterte told news outlets during a series of interviews on Wednesday, as reported by Inquirer.
The president dismissed the likelihood that the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, was behind Wednesday’s violence, citing an existing ceasefire agreement with the leftist rebels. He did not provide additional details or suggest any suspects.
Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa, told reporters that the explosives that ravaged Hilongos were similar to those used by BIFF, according to Philstar.
However, representatives of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) theorize that members of another militant group, Maute, might have orchestrated the Leyte bombing.
The Maute group might have conducted the attack in order to draw resources away from military operations targeting the jihadist-inspired organization in Butig, Lanao del Sur, Col. Edgard Arevalo, chief of the AFP Public Affairs Office, said.
Alternatively, regional army spokesperson First Lieutenant Cherry Junia suggested that Maute might have been acting in retaliation to the capture of one of the organization’s financial supporters, Raidah Ampaso Sarip.
Sarip was arrested and charged with drug-trafficking during a raid in Hindang, Leyte on October 22.
“The twin blasts in Hilongos only indicate that these terrorists are now highly mobile and they can be in different places,” Arevalo said on Thursday, as reported by the Philstar.
In light of Wednesday’s violence, AFP officials advise Filipinos to exercise extreme caution ahead of New Year’s celebrations scheduled to take place across the country this weekend. Arevalo said that security forces would not bar people from attending public gatherings, but noted that such events can become soft targets for bombings and other terrorist attacks, according to ABS-CBN News.
Chief Insp. Alberto Renomeron of the Hilongos police department told Inquirer that those present at the site of the explosion in Leyte had been watching a boxing match held in celebration of the town’s annual fiesta.
Victims of the incident suffered mostly lower body injuries and were initially sent to the Hilongos District and Leyte Baptist hospitals. Some have been transferred or referred to Ormoc District Hospital, according to Ruth Flores, who was near Rizal Plaza when the bombs were detonated.
“I thought it was just a transformer that exploded,” Flores told the Tacloban SunStar on Wednesday.
She recounted watching a frantic crowd run from the plaza before hearing another blast a few moments later.
Casualties could have been worse in Hilongos, but design flaws in the second bomb reduced its destructive potential, according to Villahermosa.
He confirmed that a third IED had been found intact at a nearby church, according to Inquirer.
Meanwhile, unidentified assailants lobbed two grenades which failed to detonate According to at a police station in the town of Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao.
The bombs that rocked Rizal Plaza were triggered via cellphone like the explosives that killed 14 people at the Roxas Night Market in Davao on Friday, September 2, according to the Tacloban SunStar. On Thursday, October 4, three Maute militants were arrested in connection with that prior bombing.
Security forces suspect that members of an unspecified separatists militia threw a grenade at a Catholic church in Mindanao as congregants attended mass on Christmas Eve, Saturday, December 24.
Despite the occurrence of a number of bombings and other violent acts in recent months, Villahermosa said Hilongo officials do not plan on canceling their town’s upcoming New Year’s Eve celebrations.
In addition, Malacañang representatives said they were not prepared to definitively label Wednesday’s attacks as acts of terrorism, and say they have no intention of implementing martial law.
“It’s an area of concern but not alarm,” Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abello told reporters during a news briefing on Thursday, December 29 “…Nobody has made actual claims regarding responsibility… for those explosions so we cannot pinpoint a specific area or person responsible.”