MANILA: Eleven people were killed in what could be the first case of suicide bombing by militant groups in the Philippines.
The incident occurred Tuesday, at 5:51 a.m. in the island province of Basilan, a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf Group.
Investigation showed a white van was stopped at a checkpoint being run by the military and the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU) in Barangay Colonia, Lamitan City, Basilan. CAFGU is the civilian paramilitary unit of the Army.
While the government forces were inspecting the van, a huge explosion occurred, instantly killing a soldier, five CAFGU members, and four civilians, including a child.
According to the military, the slain civilians were family members of some of the CAFGU personnel living in the area.
The driver of the bomb-rigged van was likewise killed in the blast, which left a huge crater, with the impact area reaching about 50 meters, according to locals in the area.
Six Scout Rangers, including a young lieutenant, and one CAFGU member sustained shrapnel wounds.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Marine Col. Edgard Arevalo said the wounded troops were those called for reinforcement after the CAFGU members found the driver acting suspiciously.
They were approaching the checkpoint when the explosion happened.
Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Governor Mujiv Hataman said the van driver may have “detonated the bomb as he sensed danger he would be captured.”
On the other hand, reports quoting Lamitan City Mayor Roderick Furigay say the van driver “looked like a foreigner” and could not speak the local dialect.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front chair Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim told Arab News initial information showed the van driver was a foreigner, but this remains to be validated.
“At this point it’s not yet clear,” Murad said. “We are still investigating what group is involved here. We have our own independent investigation and hopefully we can come up within a few days who are involved here.”
Arevalo, however, said they cannot say that “this was a foreign driver because he himself was killed in the blast” and “the AFP personnel who had contact with him also died instantaneously.”
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said: “If it can be established that it was indeed a case of suicide bombing,” the incident should be a cause of serious concern for the government and the public.
“Considering that it was the first of its kind in the country, it is frightening to say the least as, and God forbid, it could start a trend of a series of such terroristic acts that could hit other highly populated urban centers. The incident should prod the government to step up their intelligence and security capabilities to address this new deadly threat,” Lacson said, adding that “proactive offense prompted by good intelligence is still our best defense.”
Fr. Elizeo Mercado, Jr., senior policy adviser to the Institute of Autonomy and Good Governance, also said: “If it was a suicide bomber in the van, this would be the first time.” He added: “It raises the level of terrorism to a much higher notch.”
Malacañang condemned the attack, and called it a “war crime.”
The attack came a few days after President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law that aims to give autonomy to the Muslims of Mindanao.