Philippine National Police - Scenes of Crime Officers investigate the explosion Sunday, July 5, 2009 outside a Catholic church in Cotabato City. Four people are killed and over three dozens injured in the attack blamed by the military to Moro rebels. (Mindanao Examiner Photo / Geo Solmerano).
COTABATO CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / July 5, 2009) – At least 4 people were killed and about three dozens wounded in a bomb attack Sunday near a Catholic church in Cotabato City in the southern Philippines.
The Catholic Notre Dame Broadcasting Corporation said the bomb exploded at around 8.20 a.m. near restaurants and stalls selling roasted pigs outside the church in downtown Cotabato, also home to minority Muslims.
An army vehicle passing near the church was also hit by shrapnel from the explosion largely blamed by the military to Muslim separatist rebels.
“The Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s special operations group is behind this attack and this is terrorism,” Colonel Jonathan Ponce, a spokesman for the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, told the Mindanao Examiner.
Ponce said the casualties in the bombing were civilians. “The bomb was detonated just as the people are coming out of the church,” he said.
Ponce said the MILF was also behind a roadside bombing late Saturday in Maguindanao’s Datu Piang town that wounded 3 people.
The MILF has denied it was behind the latest blast and condemned the attack, saying, it was against Islamic principle.
“We condemned this attack against innocent civilians, against the Church. This is against Islamic principle and against humanity,” said Eid Kabalu, a senior MILF leader.
Kabalu also assailed the 6th Infantry Division for quickly linking the MILF to the attack.
“This (accusation) is clearly aimed at maligning the MILF and portraying the MILF as a terrorist organization. The army has already blamed the MILF even if the police is yet to investigate the bombing. This could also be the handiwork of the military to create fear and chaos in Mindanao,” he said in a separate interview.
The MILF is the country’s largest Muslim rebel group fighting the past three decades for self-determination.
The blast occurred after the MILF ordered its forces to further improve combat skills as fighting continues in the troubled region.
The secluded Murad Ebrahim, chieftain of the 12,000-strong MILF rebels, gave the order during a meeting with his commanders on a mountain hideout in central Mindanao where fighting since last year had forced tens of thousands of Muslims to flee their homes.
”It is only by sincere evaluation of these encounters that the MILF would be able to improve its fighting skills and capabilities and hope to lick the enemy in the next confrontation,” Murad said.
The MILF peace talks with Manila collapsed last year after rebels accused President Gloria Arroyo of reneging on a homeland deal that would have granted territories to about four million Muslims across 700 villages in Mindanao.
Murad said he always preferred peace negotiation over war in the resolution of the conflict in Mindanao, but continued government offensive forced the rebels to defend themselves. He called on rebel commanders to be steadfast and patient in the face of the “brutalities” of the military.
Murad also accused government troops of burning some 3,000 houses owned by Muslims and indiscriminate bombing, shelling, and arrests of civilians.
He said the military also imposed a food blockade from reaching tens of thousands of hungry refugees and prevented humanitarian groups and journalists from inspecting refugee shelters in Maguindanao.
Murad assailed the military for saying that the MILF infiltrated refugee shelters and rebels were using evacuation centers as base for reserved forces.
“The prevention of media to visit the war-torn areas by the AFP contributed to their bad image and the declaration of the military that the internally-displaced persons are reserved forces of the MILF is a blunder in the war for propaganda,” Murad said.
The military claimed more than a thousand rebels were killed in the fighting since last year. But Murad denied the report and said MILF forces killed about 500 soldiers and captured their weapons, including two unmanned aerial vehicles shot down in Maguindanao.
One of them was a US military spy plane and the other was believed to be owned by the Philippine Army. US troops are deployed in Maguindanao and helping the local military fight terrorism. (With a report from Geo Solmerano)