AN improvised bomb exploded at the gate of a church at Lamitan City in Basilan as security forces pressed an offensive in neighboring Sulu island with the toll rising to 24 extremists and two soldiers dead, officials said.
No one was hurt in the explosion at the main gate of the St. Peter Parish Church in Lamitan City at 9:30 p.m. Friday, but security officials said the blast may be part of an attempt to ease the attack on Abu Sayyaf militants which entered its fifth day on Saturday.
Ten Abu Sayyaf militants were killed in a two-hour clash on Friday after the army pounded their jungle lair in Patikul, Sulu with artillery and helicopter gunships, said Colonel Alan Arrojado, who is leading the assault.
Another 14 rebels and two troops had been killed since the fighting erupted on Tuesday, he said.
Battles were raging in the mountainous and thickly forested villages of Patikul, an area controlled by Abu Sayyaf, a group of a few hundred gunmen with links to the Al-Qaeda network.
The militants were reportedly moving with three Malaysian Jemaah Islamiyah members who were providing them with bomb-making training, military spokesman Colonel Restituto Padilla told AFP.
“This (assault) will not stop until we put an end to the Abu Sayyaf,” Padilla said.
The Malaysians have been “monitored for some time” he said.
The Abu Sayyaf in the past have harboured JI militants, including Umar Patek and Dulmatin, key suspects in the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people.
At the same time, the military admitted on Saturday that their operating in Maguindanao province was also meant to search for four Indonesians and an Arab who are believed to be terrorists under the protection of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
“There are four Indonesians who are inside Maguindanao now who are with [Abdul Basit Usman]. We are after them and the BIFF who are harboring them,” Sixth Army Infantry Division commander Major General Edmundo Pangilinan told reporters.
Pangilinann said they are also investigating reporters that an “Arabian-looking” man was also seen in the company of the BIFF in Shariff Aguak, Pagatin, Mamasapano, and Salibo towns.
Pangilinan said the five foreigners are believed to be propagating jihadism among Islamist militants, some of whome have been identified to be young students of Islamic schools in the area.
Military sources said the bombing in Lamitan may be meant to divert the attention of security forces since it was the second time the St. Peter Parish Church along Quezon Boulevard in Barangay Maganda was bombed.
The first time was in 2010 when local police foiled a plan to bomb the church and defused an improvised explosive device a few meters away from the church.
The police said the explosion on Friday caused some panic among residents, but security forces were immediately deployed to the area and there was no follow attempt.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Lamitan police chief Senor Inspector Gean Gallardo said they are looking into the bomb signature and possible motives.
The church cure, Fr. Pascual Benitez, theorized that he may have been the target of the bomb because it was placed at a gate he frequently uses when he leaves the church’s convent. He had just returned from dinner and was watching television when the blast occurred.
Meanwhile, Isabela Bishop Martin Jumoad condemned the blast as the “work of evil people.”
“Let us not drag religion to let it appear that there is tension between Muslim and Catholics,” said the bishop, who declined to comment if there were any links to the stand of most Lamitan residents to oppose inclusing in the proposed Bangsamoro region.
“Let us respect each other because the only way to peace is through peaceful ways. I ask all people to pray more so that on this season of lent the lord will guide our feet into the way of peace,” the bishop said.
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