The Philippines on Wednesday said its military had carried out air strikes in the southern province of Sulu targeting Abu Sayyaf, the local Islamist group President Rodrigo Duterte has blamed for Sunday’s bombing of a church that killed 21 and wounded nearly 100 more.
Early on Wednesday two more people were killed and four injured when a grenade was lobbed into a mosque in Zamboanga, a mostly Christian city in Mindanao that is a short boat ride from Sulu.
The violence has raised fears of an upswing in unrest in the country’s south, which is midway through a closely watched referendum on creating a Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao.
Mr Duterte put Mindanao, the region that includes both the large island of the same name and outlying archipelagoes such as Sulu, under martial law in 2017 in response to violence in the southern city of Marawi and subsequently extended it, most recently in December, to the end of 2019.
The Philippine military on Tuesday released CCTV footage that they said showed Alias Kamah, brother of Suraka Ingog, an Abu Sayyaf leader who was killed in a police and military operation in Sulu last year.
The clip showed the alleged attacker holding a mobile phone that the Philippine military said might have been used to detonate two bombs that went off in sequence, killing worshippers in Sulu’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, then government security forces who responded to the first blast.
Abu Sayyaf, whose name is Arabic for “father of the sword”, has, since its founding in the early 1990s, been blamed for a series of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings in Mindanao.
Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippine defence minister, on Wednesday confirmed the military had carried out air strikes in Sulu on places where it believed Abu Sayyaf militants were located.
Gerry Besana, of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, was quoted in Philippine media saying: “The order from the president is to pulverise Abu Sayyaf.”
For Filipinos, the use of air power will bring back uneasy memories of the siege of Marawi in 2017, the first and until now only effort by so-called Isis to gain a territorial foothold in south-east Asia.
Militants, including Isis sympathisers and Abu Sayyaf members, held the town, drawing government forces into a five-month siege that left Marawi’s centre in ruins. Mr Duterte declared victory in Marawi in October 2017 after then-Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, another militant leader, were killed.
The bombings present a renewed security and political challenge for Mr Duterte, a former long-serving mayor of Mindanao’s largest city Davao, who has made settling the region’s decades of conflict a central part of his presidency.
Voters in the south last week overwhelmingly approved the recently passed Bangsamoro Organic Law, creating a new Muslim autonomous region with strong administrative, taxation and other powers. However, voters in Sulu province voted to reject it.
Residents of the south will take part in a second plebiscite on February 6 in which residents of adjoining regions will be consulted on whether they want to join the Bangsamoro region.