COTABATO CITY: The number of casualties in the car bombing that ripped through this city on Monday afternoon rose to eight after three of the 30 injured victims died while undergoing treatment in hospital, police said.
Tension also ran high in this mixed Muslim-Christian community, especially among relatives and followers of City Mayor Japal Guiani Jr., whose family the police initially tagged as the prime “target” in the bomb attack that instantly killed two of his sister’s escorts.
Guiani said local governments “condemn to highest degree” the attack which aggravated the plight of over 30,000 residents currently displaced by floods.
“[A] big group was involved in this terroristic attack,” he said in a radio interview.
Senior Superintendent Rolen Balquin, city police chief, said investigators are pursuing a few angles, including lingering threats hounding the family of the city mayor.
The bomb, believed rigged inside a car parked across a funeral parlor on Sinsuat Avenue, went off at about 4:30 p.m. as the mayor’s Chevrolet Suburban sports utility vehicle, carrying City Administrator Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, passed by, Balquin said.
Sayadi said that they have been receiving death threats through text messages from unnamed quarters prior to the bomb attack. She and her escorts were on their way to one of the inundated villages in the city to supervise relief services for displaced flood victims at the time of the explosion.
The police official said that the blast shrapnel and splintered metal parts killed his sister’s escorts—Samsodin Hari and Usop Lajinapawan—but did not penetrate the mayor’s bulletproof vehicle.
The explosion also killed three bystanders—Sangkala Satol, Saiden Minat, and Harris Punto.
Balquin said that as of yesterday, 13 of the 30 wounded who were rushed to various hospitals, remained confined, including Jeddin Menak, 9, and Nasrudin Guialel, 14.
One of those still in hospital is SP04 Mama Manambuay, a member of the Maguindanao provincial police intelligence unit.
Manambuay was with his superior, Inspector Abubakar Mangelen Jr., aboard a police car at the busy street junction at the time of the blast.
The 30 wounded were identified as Adam Haron, Aidee Chan Olen, Alia Ulama, Allan Karuana, Alsaima Ulama, Andy Alimon, Ana Jane Ismael, Chuadi Salik, Diamna Ali, Edison Antolin, Emily Lu, Edwardo Medgar, Erlindan Dicain, Ibrahim Opam, Ivy Libradilla, Jeraisi Minat, John Anthony Pasrudin, Laisa Manguda, Mampen Macapages, Mikael Almiroda, Mokan Hamza, Nelsin Lasam, Norhaina Abbas, Normina Mama, Omar Ali, Richie Chan Visanes, Ruby Buhat, and Sarah Minat.
The explosion sparked a fire that gutted two buildings including Villa Funeral Home located in front of the blast site.
First car bombing
According to investigators, Monday’s explosion was the first car bomb case in the city and probably in Mindanao. Previous bomb attacks involved hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mostly rigged from mortar shells, planted in basements.
Investigators were not discounting other motives in the latest blast, saying it could be another handiwork of “spoilers” of the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) current peace process.
MILF officials said they would conduct separate investigation on the incident and asked the public not to make unnecessary speculations that may aggravate the confusion and tension.
Officials in adjacent provinces including Governors Emmylou Taliño-Mendoza of North Cotabato and Esmael Mangudadatu of Maguindanao also condemned the attack and urged the police to prevent a spillover of the tension to their turfs.
Senior Superintendent Danny Peralta, North Cotabato police director, placed his command on “full alert” after the incident and ordered tight security along the highway linking this city to his province.
Not a terrorist attack
President Benigno Aquino 3rd also on Tuesday discounted a terror angle in the Cotabato City blast.
In an ambush interview in Subic, the President said that there was no indication that the explosion was related to the al-Qaeda threat that temporarily shut down key US diplomatic posts across the world.
The investigators, he said, are not ruling out all angles, saying that such activity could also be perpetrated by some political groups or even those “sectors” who want to derail the ongoing peace process between the government and the MILF.
”Wala tayong indicator na ganoon ang pangyayari. Hindi lang naman ‘yung terrorism angle ang tinitingnan; meron ding potential— may political angle diyan sa Cotabato, meron ding potential criminal naman sa Cagayan de Oro,” he said.
”Huwag nating kalimutan na meron talagang mga ilang sektor na ayaw magpatuloy ‘yung ating peace process. At siguro, talaga namang pinaghahandaan ito, pero talagang magiging imposible na nandoon tayo parati sa lahat ng lugar, sa lahat ng oras para ma-prevent lahat ito. Talagang terrorists, by their nature, iilan lang sila, tagong-tago, lihim,” Aquino added.
The President, on one hand, said that authorities are also encountering difficulties in going after the suspects because of the limitations of the military and the police
But he promised that the government will bring the perpetrators to justice.
“We are exhausting all of these leads with developing, parang cases or we’re investigating the same leads to determine exactly who perpetrated. Pero palagay ko mahahanap rin natin sila in the near— kung hindi very near future,” Aquino emphasized.
Meanwhile, Aquino met with the Cabinet Security cluster in Malacañang to discuss the recent bombings.
”I called the Security Cluster precisely to tackle this particular matter,” he said.
”At this point in time, the suspects have been the objects of our concern for a very long time and we’ve been pursuing the same suspects. Hindi pa sigurado that they are the parties responsible for this,” he added.
Meanwhile, at the Senate, the committee on public order and dangerous drugs will focus on the intelligence and evidence gathering capability of the PNP before and after the bombings.
According to Sen. Grace Poe, chairman of the committee, she wanted to know if there were flaws in the gathering of evidence by police personnel after the bombing.
“I need to investigate among other things, if there were lapses or breach in security measures, “ she added.
Right after the explosion at the Limketkai shopping complex, Cagayan de Oro police allowed mall employees to clean the blast site.
The senator said that the gathering of evidence by the police personnel should be standardized.
Among those invited by the panel were Interior and Local Government Sec. Manuel “Mar” Roxas 2nd, Philippine National Police Chief Dir. Gen. Alan Purisima, and Alfonso Lim, President and CEO of Limketkai Center where the blast happened last July 26.
Cagayan de Oro City Mayor Oscar Moreno and Chief Superintendent Graciano Mijares, the city’s police director, were also asked to attend the probe.
Poe also said that she will inquire if the PNP’s intelligence funds are properly utilized.
The congressional inquiry was prompted by the call of Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel 3rd, who hails from Mindanao and who delivered a privileged speech demanding the swift identification and prosecution of the “masterminds” of the blast in Cagayan de Oro.
But Poe said since PNP officials will be attending the probe, she will also include the recent bombing in Cotabato City, the second bombing to hit Mindanao in 10 days.
She likewise condemned the latest explosion describing it as an “act of lawlessness that not only distressed the victims’ families but also sowed fear among our countrymen who are going about their daily lives.”
“Those responsible should be held accountable for their actions. We also enjoin the citizens to be vigilant and help report leads to the case,” she added.