Investigators examine the scene after an explosion at a shopping mall in the southern Philippine city of Cotabato on New Year's Eve. (Photo by Ferdinandh Cabrera)
Philippine authorities are looking into the possible involvement of Islamic State supporters in a New Year's Eve explosion that killed at least two people and wounded 34 others in the southern Mindanao region.
Several children were among the wounded in the explosion at a shopping mall in Cotabato City.
Governor Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao appealed for calm as he called on police and the military to bring the perpetrators to justice.
"We urge investigators and all civilians to not be caught up in the chaos surrounding this terrorist act," said the governor, adding that only by working together "can we bring about peace and justice."
The bombing occurred as the region prepares for a plebiscite on Jan. 21 that will decide on the implementation of a law that will create a new Muslim autonomous region.
Abu Misry Mama, spokesman of the rebel group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, said his group was not behind the attack.
He said people opposed to the creation of a new Muslim region could have carried it out.
The explosion also occurred soon after martial law was extended for another year across the region.
"It's really hard for us to secure all quarters of our areas of responsibilities," said Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the Philippine army's 6th Infantry Division.
Police investigators said another explosive devise was found at the store.
"The [explosive] carries the signature of an Islamic State-related group," said Sobejana, adding that the bombing might be in retaliation for the killing of at least seven suspected terrorists in a clash on Dec. 27.
Oblates priest Eliseo Mercado Jr., who once served as government peace negotiator in talks with rebels in Mindanao, condemned the attack.
"I mourn this tragedy. In our grief, we gather the pieces and begin anew," he said.
Government peace adviser Carlito Galvez Jr. also appealed for calm and urged people "not to spread unfounded rumors about the incident."
He said the explosion was an "isolated case" and assured that security forces were "on top of the situation."
Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that negotiated for peace after almost five decades of fighting, also condemned the attack, calling it "an act of cowardice, inhuman, and atrocious."
Jerome Succor Aba, president of the Suara Bangsamoro Party, called for an "honest investigation" into the incident and warned against using the attack as "another excuse for a military take-over."
He said it could result in an armed response that would only displace Moro communities.
Bong Sarmiento contributed to this report from South Cotabato.