MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday ordered the military to destroy the Daesh-linked Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) after authorities named it the primary suspect in the double bombing of a cathedral in Jolo, Sulu on Sunday that left 20 dead and more than 100 injured.
The president, accompanied by his top security officials, including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and military chief Gen. Benjamin Madrigal, flew to the southern province of Sulu on Monday to assess the situation at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Cathedral.
The attack occurred in the Sulu provincial capital on Jolo island, where Abu Sayyaf militants have carried out years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings and have aligned themselves with the Daesh group, which claimed responsibility for the attack.
Lorenzana blamed the attack on Abu Sayyaf commander Hatib Sawadjaan, who he said has pledged allegiance to the Daesh group.
He said that six suspects have been named in connection with the cathedral attack after footage was recovered showing the men acting suspiciously outside the church after the first explosion.
“This is an act of terrorism,” Lorenzana said. “This is not a religious war.”
Sawadjaan is based in the jungles of Patikul town, near Jolo, and has been blamed for ransom kidnappings and beheadings of hostages, including two Canadian men, in recent years.
A statement by the Daesh group posted on social media claimed the attack was carried out by two suicide bombers who wore explosive belts, one detonating at the gate and the other in the parking lot.
Following the attack, Jolo has been placed on lockdown as security forces scrambled to restore normalcy while they hunt down the perpetrators. Security had also been tightened across the entire archipelagic province of Sulu, as well as in the cities of Isabela and Lamitan in nearby Basilan island province, another known strongholds of the ASG.
The bombings came nearly a week after minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation endorsed a new autonomous region in the southern Philippines in hopes of ending nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion that has left 150,000 people dead.
Although most Muslim areas approved the autonomy deal, voters in Sulu province rejected it. The province is home to a rival rebel faction that’s opposed to the deal as well as smaller militant cells that are not part of any peace process.
Duterte met with some of the survivors and held a security meeting with military and police officials. Police have put forces around the country on heightened alert to prevent similar attacks.
“We will pursue to the ends of the earth the ruthless perpetrators behind this dastardly crime until every killer is brought to justice and put behind bars. The law will give them no mercy,” the president’s office said earlier.
The Philippine government has assured the international community that those behind the attack would be brought to justice following strong condemnations of the bombings.
Salvador Panelo, a spokesman for President Duterte, said the latest violence is all the more reason for Mindanao island to be under martial law despite critics saying that the bombings are indicative of the fact that it is ineffective.
“If you can do that under a martial law regime, then all the more reason you should maintain it and be more strict in the implementation of security measures in that area,” he said. Meanwhile, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) vowed that those responsible for this attack would not go unpunished.
“We grieve over the unnecessary loss of so many lives in this act of violence, which can only be perpetrated by the forces of evil. Those responsible for this crime will not go unpunished. We will find them and bring them to justice,” the DFA said.
“We are thankful for the many expressions of sympathy and solidarity from the international community. This terrorist act comes at a sensitive and yet hopeful period following the ratification by an overwhelming majority of the Bangsamoro Organic Law that seeks to bring peace and progress to Mindanao.”
Saudi Arabia, the US, Russia, Canada, Jordan and Japan all condemned the attack.
“A crime committed against civilians who gathered for a church service is shocking,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telegram published by the Kremlin.
Sung Kim, US ambassador to the Philippines, expressed his “deepest sympathies for the tragic loss of life in Jolo.”
“We condemn this senseless violence and we will do everything possible to support the AFP,” he said.
The military said the Daesh claim to the attack remains “a form of propaganda at this time,” noting that “they have had false claims in the past.”