By Richel V. Umel, Froilan Gallardo and Roel Pareño
A bomb believed to have been planted by foreign militants tore through a university gymnasium hosting a Catholic Mass on Sunday, killing at least four and injuring dozens in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, police and military officials said.
The explosion occurred at 7:30 a.m. at the Mindanao State University in Marawi, which was taken over by militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) in 2017. During the five-month battle that followed, at least 1,200 militants, soldiers, police and civilians were killed before the military regained control of the city.
In Manila, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. denounced the attack.
“I condemn in the strongest possible terms the senseless and most heinous acts perpetrated by foreign terrorists upon the Mindanao State University and Marawi communities early this Sunday morning. Extremists who wield violence against the innocent will always be regarded as enemies to our society,” Marcos said in a statement.
Despite his allegation, investigators did not name any specific suspects.
“I extend my most heartfelt condolences to the victims, their loved ones and the communities that have been the target of this latest assault on peace. Government assistance to those impacted is ready and forthcoming,” Marcos said.
Shalimar Sani-Rakiin, medical chief of the Amai Pakpak Medical Center in Marawi where all the victims were taken, said four people were pronounced dead and seven others suffered serious injuries. About 40 others were treated for less serious injuries and released.
A university student who was treated at the hospital said the bomb went off during the first Bible reading, according to Agence France-Presse news service.
“It was really sudden and everyone ran,” Chris Jurado, 21, told AFP from his hospital bed. “When I looked behind me people were lying on the floor. We didn’t know what happened because everything happened so fast.”
Marawi and other parts of the southern Philippines are Muslim strongholds in the majority Catholic nation. The region has seen years of violent rebellions by Islamic militant groups.
Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said the attack could be a retaliatory strike for a government offensive on Friday that killed 11 whom he identified as members of the local Daulah Islamiyah cell in Maguindanao province. The Daulah Islamiyah is the Filipino name for the Islamic State.
“We are looking at the angle that the bombing this morning might be a retaliatory attack,” Brawner said.
Also on Sunday, military forces killed militants identified as Mundi Sawadjaan and Jalandoni Lucsadato in coordinated actions, Brawner said.
Authorities identified Mundi, a sub-leader of Abu Sayyaf Group and nephew of the late Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan who was Abu Sayyaf’s presumed leader, as the mastermind of twin suicide bombings that killed 14 people in August 2020 on the island of Jolo, where the Abu Sayyaf was born. A year earlier, he masterminded a suicide bombing at Jolo Cathedral, leaving 23 people dead.
Local and international condemnation of the attacks poured in on Sunday.
“I condemn the violent bombing incident that transpired this morning. Terroristic attacks on educational institutions must also be condemned because these are places that promote the culture of peace,” Lanao del Sur Gov. Mamintal Adiong Jr. said in a statement.
“Here in my province, we uphold basic human rights and that includes the right to religion. Terroristic attacks on educational institutions must also be condemned because these are places that promote the culture of peace and mold our youth to be the future shapers of this country,” Adiong said.
The university issued a statement expressing condolences to the victims and their families.
“We are deeply saddened and appalled by the act of violence that occurred during a religious gathering at the university gymnasium this morning,” it said. “We are working closely with the local government units and law enforcement authorities to investigate this incident and bring the perpetrators to justice.”
European Union Ambassador Luc Veron called the explosion deeply disheartening, adding, “violence has no place in schools.”
U.S. Ambassador MaryKay Carlson extended condolences on behalf of her government.
“We condemn this act of violence and support efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable,” she said.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.