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Philippines links Muslim militants to bus carnage

MANILA, January 26, 2011 (AFP) – Muslim militants from the remote southern Philippines may have been behind a bus bomb attack in the nation’s financial hub that killed five people, authorities said on Wednesday.

A mortar bomb triggered by a mobile phone caused Tuesday’s explosion that ripped apart a bus traveling along one of Manila’s main roads, the city’s police chief and President Benigno Aquino’s national security adviser said.

“A Nokia cellphone is the device they used to trigger the explosion. It acts like a command-detonated explosive,” the security adviser, Cesar Garcia, said on ABS-CBN television.

“The fact that… the device used was an improvised explosive device similar to the ones used by terrorist organizations in the southern Philippines raises the possibility it was a terrorist attack.”

While Garcia said it was too early to say who was behind the blast, he pointed out it was similar to a bus bombing on the same road in Manila that killed four people and injured 36 others on February 14, 2005.

“Investigations into the 2005 Valentine’s Day bombing showed the suspects rode the bus, carried the (bomb) in a backpack, left the backpack, got off… (and) detonated the bomb with the use of a cellphone,” he said.

The Abu Sayyaf, a small group of Islamic militants blamed for the nation’s worst terrorist attacks and a string of kidnappings, claimed credit for the 2005 attack, although it has remained silent following Tuesday’s explosion.

Garcia emphasized that militant groups from the south had long coveted attacks on Manila, which is more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from their strongholds in remote jungles and isolated Muslim-populated towns in the south.

“Metro Manila has always been a long-term aspirational target of the organisations operating in the southern Philippines,” Garcia said.

However, Aquino said other groups might have been involved such as extortionists who have used bombs to target bus companies in the south before.

“We’re not even sure that the label ‘terrorist’ is the most appropriate. There are certain sectors that are saying that it might be an extortionist group also,” he told reporters.

Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo said that authorities had no reason to believe more attacks were coming, but that extra security measures had been put in place at bus and rail stations, as well as other public places.

“There will be some extra inconveniences, but our public transport system will be safe,” he said.

Aquino said on Tuesday after the attack his government was warned last year that unnamed Muslim militants had been planning to stage a bombing in Manila.

He said he did not make the report public then because his officials did not believe the militants were capable of carrying it out.

“The assessment at the time was that there was a lack of resources to be able to carry it out and a lack of support base,” he said.

His admission came after he repeatedly denounced the United States and five other Western governments in November last year when they issued travel advisories warning that a terrorist attack was imminent in Manila.

The southern Philippines has long been an area of conflict, with the Muslim population there seeking a state independent from the rest of the mainly Christian country.

The 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is set to restart peace talks shortly with the Philippine government, has waged a decades-old rebellion in the south that has claimed an estimated 150,000 lives.

The MILF, which has in the past denied any links with the Abu Sayyaf and foreign Islamic militants allegedly hiding out in the southern Philippines, on Wednesday denied any involvement in the Manila bombing.

“We are preparing for the peace talks. We are not involved,” Mohagher Iqbal, the group’s chief peace negotiator, said in an interview with a Roman Catholic radio station.

Robredo, the interior secretary, said the number of people killed in Tuesday’s attack rose from four to five on Wednesday, with 14 people injured.

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