US joins Zambo blast probe; MILF-Abu blamed


ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines–The US government is helping Philippine authorities investigate Thursday’s explosion in Barangay Sta. Maria that killed two people and wounded more than 20 others.

“Certainly, [we are extending help],” US Ambassador Kristie Kenney said Friday. “For us, we share any information [we have gathered], and our experts could help look at the crime scene.”

The Philippine Daily Inquirer on Friday saw a number of US soldiers at the explosion site–the Air Materiel Wing Savings and Loan Association building, which is across from Edwin Andrews Air Base and which houses the offices of the US-funded Alliance for Mindanao Off-Grid Renewable Energy (Amore) and of Zamboanga Rep. Ma. Isabel Climaco.

Chief Supt. Jaime Caringal, police director of Western Mindanao, said the assistance of US forces was speeding up the investigation: “That’s why we were able to gather much data from the blast site.”

He said the unnamed man arrested shortly after the explosion was still being investigated.

Caringal reiterated what he had earlier said–that separatist rebels were behind the bomb attack.

He said it was “clear” that “the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s Special Operations Group which merged with the Abu Sayyaf Group in Basilan was making a strong, powerful and loud statement.”

He named those purportedly behind the explosion as MILF leader Malista Malangka and Abu Sayyaf leader Puruji Indama, but did not say how the police had come to that conclusion.

MILF deputy information chief Khaled Musa denounced Caringal for his remarks.

“This is a serious allegation against the MILF. This is an irresponsible statement. The MILF is a partner of the government in the search for genuine peace in Mindanao,” Musa said.

According to Caringal, the improvised bomb was made of TNT.

“It was the same type of explosive used in previous bombings here, including the simultaneous attacks at the Mega Cathedral and the office of the Department of Foreign Affairs [in April],” he said.

Caringal aired the suspicion that the target of the attack was the Amore office.

“Amore is a US government project which is helping in the development of some areas, particularly conflict-affected areas. And we know that some groups are rejecting the presence and projects of Amore for the reason that these are encroaching on their places,” he said.

Caringal said another possibility was that the attack was aimed at soldiers milling around the air base. He said this was borne out by the fact that the bomb had been placed among the baggage of people waiting to hitch a ride to Manila on a military transport plane that was to take off from the base.

He said it might even be possible that the bomb was meant for the C-130 itself.

Asked whether the target was the Amore office, Ambassador Kenney said: “I don’t know. It’s impossible to speculate, [but the act is] inconceivable. I don’t know the motive or the details.”

She said the US government was hopeful that “very quickly, the long arm of the authorities will find those responsible so that we will be able to get on with our work.”

‘Isolated case’

The bomb attack occurred while Kenney was visiting an Amore-funded project in Tigbao, Zamboanga del Sur. Among the wounded were four Amore engineers, all Filipinos.

On the phone with reporters in Manila, Col. Darwin Guerra, the commander of Task Force Zamboanga, said the bomb attack was nothing to worry about.

“Zamboanga City is still safe and secure. This is just an isolated case,” he said.

To stress his point, Guerra said that only the other weekend, a summit on global warming and food security with 14,000 participants was held in the city without a hitch.

He said the police investigation was still ongoing, but reiterated that it was a terrorist attack aimed at inflicting “maximum damage” regardless of who would be hurt or killed.

Guerra said that in view of the attack, Task Force Zamboanga would review and strengthen existing security measures.

He said the city was “a unique area” in that the military and the police had to “share” some of its security forces in guarding vital installations.

Guerra also said a coordinating conference with the task force, the police and other major military units in the area was to be held Friday, with Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga, the head of the Western Mindanao Command, presiding.

But MILF civil military affairs chief Eid Kabalu called on the military and the police to look deeper into the bomb attack “instead of issuing baseless allegations.”

Kabalu described Caringal’s remarks against the MILF as the “height of irresponsibility,” adding that what the latter could have done was to “wait for the result of the investigation.”

He also wondered how the police and the military could have determined the perpetrators so soon.

Kabalu said the bomb attack could be part of the plot of a certain party that did not want the peace talks between the government and the MILF to resume.

“We have been warning the government about this,” he said.

The peace talks hit a snag in December over the issue of ancestral domain.

The government insists that the future of the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity will be determined by a plebiscite to be held for the purpose. But the MILF disagreed with that position, and pulled out of the negotiations.

Lately, Kuala Lumpur withdrew from the International Monitoring Team because of dismay over the slow progress of the peace talks.

Al-Khobar

In General Santos City, Col. Benito de Leon said the al-Khobar extortion gang, an alleged ally of the regional terror network Jemaah Islamiyah, remained a potent and immediate threat to the peace and security of the city and other parts of Central Mindanao.

De Leon, commander of the Joint Task Force Gensan, said that from being a kidnap-for-ransom gang, al-Khobar had metamorphosed into a dreaded extortion group.

“However, we consider it not a problem but a bigger challenge. Neutralizing and preventing this group from entering the city is among our priorities,” he said.

Al-Khobar is being blamed for the series of bomb attacks on bus companies and commercial establishments in the region, which is made up of the provinces of South Cotabato, Sarangani, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat, and the cities of General Santos, Koronadal, Tacurong, Kidapawan and Cotabato.

Among the deadliest attacks attributed to al-Khobar was the June 2007 bus bombing in Bansalan, Davao del Sur, where about 12 people were killed and scores of others wounded.

With reports from Nikko Dizon in Manila; Aquiles Zonio, Inquirer Mindanao

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