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MANILA, Philippines (AP) – The Philippine army chief said Tuesday that two Islamic militants who blew themselves up were responsible for the bombings that killed at least 14 people and wounded 75 more in the country’s worst extremist attack this year.
Military officials initially said the first of two explosions that rocked Jolo town in the southern province of Sulu on Monday was caused by a bomb rigged to a motorcycle, while the second blast was a female suicide bomber.
Army commanding general Cirilito Sobejana, however, said an initial investigation, along with witness accounts and security camera video, showed the first explosion was also set off by a suicide attacker.
“It’s been validated,” Sobejana told reporters.
The military is trying to determine if the two suicide bombers were the widows of Abu Sayyaf militants Talha Jumsah and Norman Lasuca, Sobejana said.
Jumsah, who used the nom de guerre Abu Talha, was a little-known but key commander who bridged the Abu Sayyaf with the Islamic State group and plotted suicide attacks before he was killed by troops last year. Lasuca died in a suicide attack on a Sulu army camp last year.
The largely Roman Catholic nation’s southern region has been the scene of decades of Muslim separatist unrest.
The bombings Monday were the latest suicide attacks in the predominantly Muslim province of Jolo, including the deadly January 2019 bombing of a Roman Catholic cathedral believed to have been carried out by an Indonesian couple.
Most of the victims Monday, including children, were caught in the first blast, near two parked army trucks in front of a grocery store and computer shop in a downtown plaza where the cathedral is located.
In the second blast, the attacker blew herself up near a group of soldiers and police, killing one soldier and one police commando and wounding several others, a military report said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but the military blamed an Abu Sayyaf militant commander, Mundi Sawadjaan, who has been linked to suicide bombings in recent years in Sulu.
Military officials said last week that Sawadjaan had plotted bombings in Sulu using two female suicide attackers. Army troops were carrying out a covert operation to locate and capture Sawadjaan and the suicide bombers in June when four army personnel were stopped at a Jolo police checkpoint and later shot to death by a group of police.
The army angrily described the killings as a rub out and demanded murder charges be filed immediately against nine police officers. Police officials, however, said it may have been a mistaken encounter between the army and police forces. President Rodrigo Duterte intervened and discouraged any retaliatory moves after the killings.
The military has been waging a yearslong offensive against the Abu Sayyaf, a small but violent group listed by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist group for past bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings.
Its armed fighters have dwindled in number to a few hundred in recent years due to battle setbacks, infighting and surrenders. But they remain a national and regional security threat.