Two bombs exploded within minutes of each other, tearing apart a Roman Catholic cathedral in the southern city of Jolo, killing 20 people and injuring more than 110 during Sunday mass.
- Abu Sayyaf militants have for years carried out bombings, kidnappings and beheadings in the region
- The attack comes almost a week after a new autonomous area was endorsed in hopes of ending about 50 years of separatist rebellion
- Most Muslim areas approved the autonomy deal but voters in the province in which Jolo is located rejected it
Witnesses said the first blast went off inside Jolo’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel cathedral, sending churchgoers, some of them wounded, stampeding out of the main door.
Soldiers and police posted outside were rushing in when the second bomb went off near the main entrance, causing more deaths and injuries.
Police said at least 20 people died and 111 were injured, revising down an earlier death toll.
Among the injured were 17 soldiers, two police officers and 90 civilians.
No-one has immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
The initial explosion scattered the wooden pews inside the main hall of the cathedral and blasted window glass panels.
The second bomb hurled human remains and debris across a town square fronting the cathedral, witnesses said.
Mobile phone signals were cut off in the first hours after the attack.
Photos on social media showed debris and bodies lying on a busy street outside the cathedral, which has been hit by bombs in the past.
“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,” the office of President Rodrigo Duterte said.
Troops in armoured vehicles sealed off the main road leading to the church while vehicles were transporting the dead and wounded to the hospital.
Some casualties were evacuated by air to nearby Zamboanga City.
“I have directed our troops to heighten their alert level, secure all places of worship and public places at once, and initiate proactive security measures to thwart hostile plans,” Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
“We will not allow them to spoil the preference of the people for peace,” he added.
What is behind Jolo’s violent history
Jolo is the capital of the province of Sulu, which has long been troubled by the presence of Abu Sayyaf militants.
Abu Sayyaf is blacklisted by the US and the Philippines as a terrorist organisation because of years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings.
This new attack came nearly a week after Muslims in the neighbouring province of Mindanao overwhelmingly approved the creation of a new autonomous region in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
The creation of the new region is aimed at ending nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion that has left 150,000 people dead.
Citizens across the Philippines were allowed to vote in the referendum, and while most of the Muslim areas approved the autonomy deal, voters in Sulu province rejected it.
The province is home to a rival rebel faction that is opposed to the deal as well as smaller militant cells that are not part of any peace process.
Western governments have welcomed the autonomy pact.
They worry small numbers of Islamic State-linked militants from the Middle East and South-East Asia could forge an alliance with local insurgents and turn the south into a breeding ground for extremists.
Aside from the small but brutal Abu Sayyaf group, other militant groups in Sulu include a small band of young jihadis aligned with the Islamic State group, which has also carried out assaults, including ransom kidnappings and beheadings.
Government forces have pressed on sporadic offensives to crush the militants, including those operating in Jolo island, a poverty-wracked area of more than 700,000 people.
A few thousand Catholics live mostly in the capital.
Security officials were looking “at different threat groups and they still can’t say if this has something to do with the just-concluded plebiscite”, Mr Albayalde said.
The cathedral is located in Jolo town centre in front of a square and near a budget hotel, a bank and commercial stores as well as a public market.
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