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Islamic Militants Bomb Catholic Church in Southern Philippines Killing 18 Worshipers

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JOLO, Philippines – In one of the deadliest bomb attacks to strike the southern Philippines in years, 18 people were killed Sunday when a double bomb attack hit a Catholic church on a southern Philippine island that is a stronghold of 18 people were killed Sunday when a double bomb attack hit a Catholic church on a southern Philippine island that is a stronghold of Islamist militants.

The Philippine military said, the bombing on the Island of Jolo came just days after voters backed expanded Muslim self-rule in the region.

Manila swiftly vowed to hunt down the attackers, but no group has claimed the bombing.

The attack was claimed by the Islamic militants, the powerful first blast shattered pews, broke windows and left bodies strewn inside the cathedral in the Catholic-majority nation’s restive south as mass was being celebrated.

Moments later a second explosion outside killed troops who were rushing to help the wounded in the smoking and heavily damaged church on Jolo, which is overwhelmingly Muslim.

A Military report said the second bomb was left in the utility box of a motorcycle in the parking area outside the church.

It is one of the deadliest bomb attacks to strike the insurgency-plagued southern Philippines in years, and shows militants in the region are still a threat despite recent steps toward peace, experts said.

Authorities said the notorious Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group could be behind the blasts

The bloodshed came less than a week after voters’ decisive approval of giving Muslims in the south more control over their own affairs, which sparked hopes of quelling long-time separatist violence.

“Just because the (referendum) has passed does not mean that things are going to get better overnight,” said Gregory Wyatt, director for business intelligence at PSA Philippines Consultancy.

“There are still militant groups that will continue to be active and pose a security threat,” he told AFP.

President Rodrigo Duterte swiftly vowed to hunt down the Muslim attackers.

“We will pursue to the ends of the earth the ruthless perpetrators behind this dastardly crime, the law will give them no mercy”

The door, pews and glass windows of Mount Carmel Cathedral were blown off, military photos showed.

Five soldiers, a member of the coast guard and 12 civilians were among the dead while 83 other people were wounded, said regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Gerry Besana.

The regional police chief Graciano Mijares put the toll slightly higher at 20 dead, lower than a figure of 27 he gave initially.

The timing of Sunday’s bombs raised questions on whether the attack was meant to derail the peace process.

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said “extremist criminals” plotted the bombings.

“We will not allow them to spoil the preference of the people for peace,” Esperon said. “Peace must prevail over war.”

By Agence France Presse