Deadly bombings target church in southern Philippines
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Twin bombings during a church service in the southern Philippines killed at least 20 people and wounded 81, security officials said, days after a referendum on autonomy for the mainly Muslim region returned an overwhelming "yes" vote.
The attack was one of the deadliest in recent years in a region long plagued by instability. It came amid hope and excitement about the ratification of a devolution plan that aims to bring development, jobs and peace to one of Asia's poorest and most volatile places.
The first explosion went off inside the cathedral on Jolo island, in Sulu province, and was followed by a second blast outside, which was detonated as security forces raced to the scene, officials said.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the bombings, its news agency Amaq said on Sunday.
"The enemies of the state have boldly challenged the capability of the government to secure the safety of the citizenry in that region," said Salvador Panelo, spokesman of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
"The armed forces of the Philippines will rise to the challenge and crush these godless criminals."
Pictures distributed by the military of the inside of the Jolo church showed several rows of wooden pews destroyed, with debris strewn across a blackened floor.
The attack followed Friday's announcement that the region, a mainly Muslim part of the predominantly Catholic Philippines, had ratified the creation of an autonomous area called Bangsamoro, with 85 percent of voters behind it.
Although Sulu was among only a few areas that rejected autonomy, it will still be part of the new entity when it is fully formed in 2022.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called the attack a "dastardly act" and urged the local population to cooperate and "deny terrorism any victory".
National Security Adviser, Hermogenes Esperon, called those responsible "mass murderers" and "extremist criminals".
"We will not allow them to spoil the preference of the people for peace," he added.
Civilians bore the brunt of the attack, which also killed five soldiers. Police lowered the death toll from 27 to 20, after discovering duplications in initial records.
The referendum came amid concerns about the presence of extremists in the Philippines and the possibility that foreign radicals will join those of Indonesia and Malaysia in gravitating to Mindanao to capitalize on porous borders, jungles and mountains, and an abundance of arms.
The Philippine military in mid-2017 encountered its biggest and longest battle since World War Two when an alliance of extremists loyal to Islamic State, among them foreigners and children, overran Marawi City and tried to establish a caliphate.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)