Southern Philippines on full alert after deadly bomb blast

Catholic bishops warn of resurgence of violent extremism in Mindanao
Southern Philippines on full alert after deadly bomb blast

Soldiers man a checkpoint in Basilan province in the southern Philippines. (Photo by Joe Torres)

Security forces have been placed on full alert in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao following a deadly suicide bomb blast in Basilan province that killed ten people on July 31.

Catholic Church leaders in the region warned the attack — blamed on the Abu Sayyaf terror group — could heighten tensions between Muslims and Christians in the region.

"There can never be peace if we continue this kind of attitude of fomenting fear among our people," Archbishop Martin Jumoad of Ozamiz said.

The prelate, who served as bishop of Basilan for 14 years, said the attack makes the achievement of peace on the island elusive.

The powerful explosion at a military checkpoint in the city of Lamitan killed six soldiers and four civilians. The driver of the vehicle that exploded was also killed in the blast.

The vehicle, rigged with improvised bombs, went off while being examined by the soldiers. 

The attack came a week after President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which seeks to establish a new Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao.

The law is part of a peace deal signed between the Philippine government and Moro rebels aimed at ending almost five decades of war in the region.

Terrorism expert Rommel Banlaoi of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said the peace deal was not a "magic pill that can give a panacea to the multifaceted problems of armed conflicts."

He said challenges will come from local politicians and armed groups opposed to the new Bangsamoro law. 

Banlaoi warned that the new law could be used as leverage by the so-called Islamic State to attract foreign fighters to come to Mindanao to oppose the "cooptation of the infidels."

Archbishop Jumoad said peace in Mindanao could only be achieved if Muslims and Christians achieve unity.

Bishop Edwin dela Pena of the Prelature of Marawi said the bomb attack was "violent extremism at its ugliest manifestation."

"We condemn this act without reservation," said the prelate of the war-torn city of Marawi, where about 400,000 people lost their homes during clashes between security forces and Islamic State-inspired fighters last year.

Bishop Dela Pena said the Abu Sayyaf terror group, which is known for abducting and killing hostages in Basilan, bungled the opportunity for dialogue with this week's attack.

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Last month, Duterte announced that he was inviting the group for talks in line with his efforts to bring peace and stability to Mindanao.

Governor Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslin Mindanao condemned the blast as a "brazen act of violence against our people."

The governor assured the families of the victims of help, adding that he would strengthen security in the region without compromising the rights of the people.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the government will do everything within its power to get to the bottom of this incident and will "apply the full force of the law on the perpetrators."

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