MANILA, Philippines – The military is eyeing the Maute terror group in the bombing of the town plaza of Hilongos, Leyte last Wednesday night.
In line with initial military findings, Col. Edgard Arevalo, Armed Forces Public Affairs Office chief, said the Maute group could have launched the Leyte bombing to divert the attention of government troops conducting offensive operations against the group in Butig, Lanao del Sur.
The presence of the Maute group, which claims to have been inspired by the international terror group Islamic State, showed that they have become more mobile like the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
“The twin blasts in Hilongos only indicate that these terrorists are now highly mobile and they can be in different places. That’s the reason we are also laying down security preparations in places of convergence as well as in cities across the country to see to it that these areas are properly monitored, especially now that there are lots of gatherings,” Arevalo said.
The Maute and the BIFF, according to Arevalo, are closely linked as they have been monitored helping and assisting each other in the conduct of their terrorist acts.
Badly beaten by state forces in more than two weeks of fighting in Butig town, the Maute group is also hurting after their alleged lady financier was arrested in a drug bust in Hilongos last Oct. 22.
Raidah Ampaso Sarip, a native of Marawi City but based in Hindang, Leyte, was busted in a police sting. She was charged with drug trafficking.
“The explosion could have been perpetrated by her allies in retaliation against the Hilongos police,” 1/Lt Cherry Junia, spokesman for the 8th Infantry Division, said.
The Hilongos twin blasts are being seen as a ploy by the Maute to project that they are a big group.
For now, Junia said they are still awaiting official confirmation of the Maute group’s involvement in the Hilongos blasts.
The Maute was also tagged as the brains behind the Davao City night market bombing last September wherein 15 civilians were killed and 70 others wounded.
President Duterte said gangs involved in illegal drugs are behind the recent explosions in Hilongos, Leyte and Midsayap, North Cotabato.
Duterte said the Christmas Eve explosion in a Midsayap church, which left at least 20 persons injured, happened while the priest was talking about extrajudicial killings.
The blast in Hilongos, Duterte claimed, was caused by a “turf war” among groups with drug links.
“I said terror is now driven by (drugs),” the President told CNN Philippines yesterday.
“With regard to Leyte, what was being fought there is a turf war. We are really going to a slide just like Columbia,” he added.
Duterte said some groups involved in narcotics are being run inside penal colonies.
He said the boss of the group uses phones to direct operations and maintain the business. He also reiterated that the Maute group have links to illegal drugs.
“There seem to be a merger between drugs and the Maute,” the President said in a separate interview with GMA News.
Philippine National Police chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa said yesterday that the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used in the bombing in Hilongos are similar to the bombs manufactured by the BIFF.
“It has the signature of the BIFF,” said Dela Rosa.
He said investigators are looking at two possible motives, including retaliation by a drug syndicate after the recent arrest of suspected Muslim drug traffickers in the province.
Another angle is vengeance of other Muslim groups also involved in the manufacture of counterfeit money.
Dela Rosa said it is possible that the IEDs were sold to the suspects and brought to Leyte from Mindanao.
He said it is too early to tell if the incident in Hilongos is connected to another bombing incident in Aleosan, North Cotabato last Wednesday where eight people were injured.
On a possible spillover of the attacks in Metro Manila, Dela Rosa said the police have not monitored any threats to the metropolis, Cebu and Davao.
“Don’t worry. Please relax and enjoy the Yuletide season,” he said.
Some 34 persons were injured after three IEDs exploded while residents were watching a boxing bout to celebrate the town fiesta in Hilongos.
Senior Supt. Franco Simborio, Leyte police provincial director, said that investigators have recovered shrapnel from the three IEDs that were fashioned from an 81 mm mortar.
Among the injured was Giselle Managbanag, a 26-year-old pregnant mother, and eight youths who were watching the boxing bout.
Simborio said the youngest victim was identified as 7-year-old Chir Angel Abina who was hit by shrapnel in her leg.
Sixteen of the 34 injured victims were released from hospital while the rest remain confined in several hospitals in Tacloban, Hilongos and Baybay City.
The pregnant Managbanag suffered wounds in her face, legs and hands and is now confined at the Hilongos District Hospital.
During the blast, Managbanag and her husband were standing near the boxing ring at the Rizal Plaza.
“I’m still in a state of shock, thanks to God we were able to survive. We are appealing to the police authorities and other investigating agency of the government to fast-track the conduct of the investigation for the immediate arrest of the suspects,” Managbanag said.
Simborio said that the three IEDs were reportedly planted in various areas a few meters away from the boxing ring.
He said that the IEDs were not too powerful and failed to explode in a “high order,” otherwise more people could have been killed or injured.
Police and Army units were deployed to investigate and track down the suspects.
Simborio said closed circuit television footage of the bombing would assist investigators in the identification of the suspects.
He also confirmed intelligence reports of bombing plots in Metro Manila, Mindanao and other areas.
Senior Police Officer 4 Fortunato Colibao of the PNP Regional Office 8 Explosive and Ordnance Division revealed that investigators have recovered a cellphone from the crime scene used to trigger the IEDs.
Investigators have invited at least 30 Muslim youths to the police station for questioning.
Hilongos Mayor Alex Villahermosa said there is a lead in the investigation and there were reports that the bomb could have been made in Maguindanao.
Villahermosa said his wife was only 12 meters away from one of the IEDs but she was not hurt.
“The people who witnessed the bombing last night were still in a state of shock, so maybe after an emergency meeting with the municipal peace and order council we will introduce security measures, depending on the outcome of the initial investigation,” he said, adding that those behind it wanted to send a message to the President.
N. Cotabato bombing
Seven persons were hurt after a roadside bomb imploded in Aleosan, North Cotabato in another attack blamed on the BIFF.
The victims were identified as Amerol Musa Tantos, Hanep Alipa Ayon, Yahya Kasan, Pahmi Daya Diamla, Johary Amerol, Salman Tahir and truck driver Jamal Pacalna.
Police said the victims were all hospitalized after suffering various wounds when two IEDs exploded along the Davao-Cotabato Highway in Barangay Pagangan in Aleosan.
The victims were passengers of a passing Isuzu truck.
The IED included a battery-operated blasting device that could be detonated from a distance.
Aleosan police chief Senior Insp. Edwin Abantes said probers have yet to determine the exact identities of the bombers.
Local officials said the bombing could have been the operation of outlawed BIFF. With Emmanuel Tupas, Miriam Desacada, John Unson