Investigators said the first blast went off in the main hall of the church at about 8:15 a.m., sending churchgoers rushing out in a panic.
Shortly afterward, as soldiers and police responded, a second blast went off near the main entrance, killing more people.
The explosions were so powerful that some bodies were blown to pieces. Inside the church, wooden pews and windows were shattered and bodies were strewn across the ground.
The second bomb was placed in the utility box of a parked motorcycle outside of the church, just a few meters of the main entrance, initial reports said.
The fatalities included 15 civilians and five army troopers. Some 81 were wounded, among them 14 military personnel, two policemen and 65 civilians, all brought to the Zamboanga City General Hospital. Soldiers were airlifted to Camp Teodulfo Bautista Station Hospital in Jolo, Sulu, said Chief Supt. Graciano Mijares, regional director of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Additional troops were deployed, including some in armored carriers, in key areas and urban centers.
Authorities initiallly blamed terrorists such as the Abu Sayyaf Group for the attack, but did not discount other groups.
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A week before the blast, the military had locked down portions of the road network leading to populated urban centers in a bid prevent any infiltration by terrorists.
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National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon condemned the attack, calling the perpetrators “mass murderers.”
“We will not allow them to spoil the preference of the people for peace. Security forces have tightened [security in] Sulu and the rest of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao,” he said.
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He said they have yet to establish if the blasts were related to the recently concluded plebiscite to ratify the BOL, the law that would give Muslim Mindanao greater autonomy and the linchpin in efforts to bring peace to the region.
Unlike the rest of the ARMM, Sulu province, including Jolo, had voted against the BOL.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana ordered a heightened alert and tighter security in all places of worship and in other public areas, and vowed that the bombers would be brought to justice.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman condemned the incident as an “act of terrorism and murder.”
“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,” Salvador Panelo said in a statement.
Authorities said the notorious Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group could be behind the blasts.
“When you talk about terrorism in Sulu, the primary suspect is always the (Abu Sayyaf) but we are not discounting the possibility that there are other perpetrators,” regional military spokesman Lt. Col. Gerry Besana said.
Jolo is a base of the Abu Sayyaf, which is blamed for deadly bombings, including an attack on a ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 that claimed 116 lives in the country’s deadliest terror assault.
The Abu Sayyaf is a loose network of militants formed in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network, and has earned millions of dollars from banditry and kidnappings-for-ransom, often targeting foreigners.
It is among armed groups based in the strife-torn region of Mindanao, some of whose members have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
Jolo also lies in the proposed Bangsamoro Muslim-majority autonomous region, which local voters overwhelmingly approved last week.
Despite Sulu’s vote, the province is legally required to join Bangsamoro because voters from across the current autonomous region voted in favor of it on the whole.
Sunday’s bombing comes after a New Year’s eve blast in the city of Cotabato killed two people and wounded 35 others.
Cotabato last week voted to be included in the new autonomous region.
The timing of Sunday’s bombs raised questions on whether the attack was meant to derail the peace process.
Mujiv Hataman, governor of the current autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao, said the blasts highlighted the urgency of implementing the BOL.
“Terrorists want to make their presence known. I hope the (law) is implemented well so it could be a solution to stop the spread of terrorism,” Hataman said.
The Palace said the authorities are wasting no time to identify the group behind the attack.
“Authorities are now investigating these brazen attacks, which includes identifying the group behind the blast,” Panelo said.
“We condole with the families of the victims that perished in this tragedy even as we attend to the injured and give succor to their families,” he added.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the bomb targeting the innocent and the helpless was “the highest form of cowardice.”
Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri also condemned the attack in Sulu.
“Clearly those who took part in this dastardly act just want to taint the victory achieved by the Bangsamoro people in their ratification of the BOL,” he said.
Anak Mindanao Rep. Amihilda Sangcopan described the attack as “alarming” and asked why such an attack was carried out even under martial law.
Muntinlupa City Rep. Ruffy Biazon said the attack was an affront to the people of Sulu and Mindanao, and a direct challenge to the government efforts to achieve peace in the south.
“Targeting a place of worship on a day of worship not only ensured that there would be a big number of casualties but [would have] psychological, social and even religious impact as well,” he said.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) condemned the attack and called for religious tolerance.
“As we begin a new phase in the peace process with the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, we ask our Christian brethren to join hands with all peace-loving Muslim and Indigenous People communities in the advocacy against violent extremism,” the CBCP said in a statement. “May all our religions of peace guide us in our quest for a brighter future for the peoples of Mindanao.” With Nat Mariano, Macon Ramos-Araneta, Rio N. Araja, AFP, and PNAREAD: Comelec tally resolves BOL vote issues
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