MANILA: Philippine authorities have heightened security in the provinces of Cotabato and Maguindanao after explosions injured at least 19 people, including eight soldiers, on Sunday night.
The attacks occurred on the eve of a visit from President Rodrigo Duterte, who was scheduled to arrive in Cotabato City Monday afternoon.
The explosions led to a lockdown in Cotabato City that was lifted a few hours later.
“We are now saturating the area, we are intensifying our intelligence, as well as security operations,” Lt. Gen. Cirilito E. Sobejana, from the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), told Arab News.
He said the situation in the area was back to normal and that everything was being done to ensure the presidential visit would be safe and secure.
Maj. Arvin Encinas, a Westmincom spokesman, said the first explosion happened around 6:05 p.m., when two motorcycle-riding men lobbed a grenade at troops in the city.
Eight soldiers and four civilians were wounded. Encinas said witnesses described the suspects as young-looking, estimated to be around 15 years old.
An improvised explosive device (IED) was detonated less than an hour later. Elements of Task Force Kutawato immediately responded and confirmed the IED contained a 60mm main charge.
Government forces also found a small truck “loaded with IEDs.”
That same evening another IED exploded in Poblacion, North Cotabato, injuring five people.
Security forces cordoned off the area but, a few minutes later, another blast was heard 15 meters from the first site. No casualties were reported from the second blast.
In Maguindanao, an IED exploded along the highway in Nuro, Upi near Datu Blah Sinsuat Hospital, at around 8:50 p.m. on Sunday.
Sobejana said authorities were now looking at all possible motives behind the attack and who the possible perpetrators could be, particularly the Daesh-inspired Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
“The BIFF because they have been doing this since their creation, but we are (also) looking at other angles which I could not share with you as of this moment until such time that we are able to validate.”
Asked whether the attacks could be related to Duterte’s visit, he replied: “We are looking at that angle, so we are really validating whether it is in connection with the visit of the president.
So right now we have to secure the place, not only Cotabato City but other places of convergence … So we are pouring in more forces in those areas to prevent the execution of hostile plans by lawless groups.”
The government has been concerned that Daesh supporters from the region and those fleeing Iraq and Syria are exploiting the porous borders, lawlessness and abundant arms found in the southern Philippines to take refuge in its far-flung villages.
The military is currently fighting on multiple fronts in Mindanao to defeat home-grown Daesh loyalists, bandits and communist insurgents. The region has been under martial law since May 2017. Duterte said martial law would be lifted by the end of this year, and Sobejana believed the attacks would not affect that.
“The president had already decided that martial law will not be extended. We have to assure the public that we will do our best effort to maintain peace and order, together with our counterparts from the Philippine National Police and local government units, and the community or population as a whole. The good thing is with the non-extension of martial law, the president has issued Executive Order No. 70 wherein it mandates for the creation of task forces to end armed conflict at various levels — at the national level, at the regional level, at provincial level, municipal level, down to the barangay (village or district) level.”
The presidential palace condemned the Sunday evening attacks and warned those behind them that any attempt to “sow fear, hatred and violence is doomed to fail.”
The Department of Justice has asked the National Bureau of Investigation to investigate the explosions.