Explosions Sunday morning at a cathedral in Jolo, in the Philippine region of Mindanao, killed at least 20 people and wounded dozens of others, just after a landmark vote to form a new Muslim autonomous region here following decades of unrest.
The blasts underscore how elusive peace remains in the southern Philippines, where Muslim extremist groups such as Abu Sayyaf and others linked to the Islamic State have long wreaked havoc in the Catholic-majority country.
The attacks, using two improvised explosive devices, occurred about 8.15am Sunday (local time), just before mass, according to a statement from Philippine defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
The first bomb went off as churchgoers were attending a service, and a second was detonated as soldiers rushed into the church to respond.
Police said at least 20 people were killed, among them five soldiers who were responding to the first blast, revising an earlier estimate that officials said was incorrect due to double counting.
At least 81 people were reported injured. Some of the casualties had to be airlifted to the nearby city of Zamboanga for treatment.
“We are in close coordination with (Philippine National Police) counterparts to aid in the investigation and in the identification of the perpetrators,” the Philippine army said.
No specific armed group has claimed responsibility for the blast, but the office of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte condemned the bombing as an “act of terrorism”.
“The Armed Forces of the Philippines will rise to the challenge and crush these godless criminals,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said in a statement.
Analysts say, however, that the attacks bear the hallmark of the Abu Sayyaf Group, which has long been active in Jolo and is known to have its base of operations in the province.
The militant group has been listed as a foreign terrorist organisation by the US State Department. Various abductions, bombings and killings have been attributed to it, including the 2001 kidnapping of three American citizens.
The Abu Sayyaf Group “has the capability to mount such kinds of mass casualty bombing attacks,” said Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
The attacks come just after the region voted this week in a landmark referendum aimed at bringing peace to a region that has for decades been plagued by conflict and violence.
The vote for the so-called Bangsamoro Organic Law, ratified this week, created a new autonomous region in the Muslim-heavy region of Mindanao, which will first be governed by a transitional authority before a new regional government is set up.
Jolo, the capital of Sulu province, rejected the law but would still be considered part of the autonomous region. Analysts say it will be extremely difficult to implement the new law in that part of the region.
Some fear the blast may be a way to shake up the peace process, as some militant factions were not involved in negotiations for the Bangsamoro. It also comes after a mall bombing that left two dead in Cotabato City, about 370 miles away, in December. A military clash with Islamic State-inspired fighters in the province of Lanao del Sur also left three militants dead earlier this week, according to local media reports.
Philippine national security adviser Jun Esperon said authorities have yet to determine whether the two explosions are related to the vote on the Bangsamoro law.
“The perpetrators are mass murderers … We will not allow them to spoil the preference of the people for peace,” he said.
Lorenzana urged the public to “remain calm and avoid spreading panic in our respective communities, to deny terrorism any victory”.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines issued a statement condemning the attacks and appealed for peace among all religions in the region.
“As we begin a new phase in the peace process with the creation of (the autonomous region), we ask our Christian brethren to join hands with all peace-loving Muslim and Indigenous People communities in the advocacy against violent extremism,” the statement said.