UPDATE: Car bomb kills 11 in Basilan

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/ 31 July) – A car laden with a powerful bomb exploded at a military checkpoint in Basilan province in the southern Philippines Tuesday morning, killing at least 11 persons, including five government troops, officials said.

The deadly blast came less than a week after President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which seeks to establish the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Basilan is part of the ARMM, an impoverished, war-torn region in the south and home to the minority Muslim Filipinos.

Lt. Col. Gerry Besana, spokesperson of the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), refused to characterize the incident in Lamitan City as a suicide attack, saying that authorities are still conducting investigations.

Lamitan City Vice Mayor Roderick Furigay said it was the first case of suicide bombing in his city.

Besana also belied speculations that the car explosion could be the handiwork of those opposing the BOL, a measure many hoped would bring just and lasting peace to Mindanao after almost 50 years of armed conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

“This is an act of terrorism,” Besana said in a phone interview.

The bomb exploded inside the car and the shattered parts became shrapnel, said Besana, explaining the death of the five government troops who belonged to the 9th Scout Ranger Company.

After flagging down the vehicle, they surrounded it after being tipped off that a bomb was inside the car, Besana said.

He said five civilians and the driver of the car, whom authorities considered a suspect, were also killed in the blast.

Two other militiamen were wounded, according to a Westmincom statement.

Besana declined to tag any group behind the explosion, saying they still have to determine the signature of the explosive.

He noted, however, that Basilan has become “peaceful” lately due to the series of surrenders of Abu Sayyaf members in the province.

This year, 55 Abu Sayyaf members have surrendered in Basilan, the official said.

Lieutenant General Arnel Dela Vega, WestMinCom commander, vowed to exhaust every available resource under his disposal to immediately identify the perpetrators so that the people of Basilan will have the peace that they truly deserve.

ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman condemned the blast, which he described as a “brazen act of violence against our people.”

“We mourn the loss of lives in this senseless attack to our safety, and we continue to thank those who have devoted and continue to devote their lives to securing peace in the Bangsamoro,” he said in a statement.

Hataman, who assured the victims’ families of help, vowed to strengthen the security in the region “without compromising the rights of the Moro people.”

Mindanao remains under martial law until the end of the year. (Bong S. Sarmiento/MindaNews)