MANILA — Two powerful explosions ripped through heavily populated areas of a southern Philippine island on Monday, killing at least nine people in a known stronghold of the extremist group Abu Sayyaf.
“There was a heavy explosion” around noon near the town plaza on Jolo Island, said Capt. Rex Payot, a spokesman of the joint police-military antiterrorism task force.
Initial police and military reports said at least five soldiers and four civilians were killed instantly in the blast, which occurred as soldiers were assisting local municipal officials in carrying out Covid-19 humanitarian efforts.
Not long after, a second explosion hit near the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, though there were no immediate reports of casualties from that blast. Early last year, a suicide bombing at the same cathedral killed at least 23 people just as worshipers were gathering for Sunday Mass.
No one immediately took responsibility for the explosions. But Jolo, in the Sulu Archipelago in the nation’s far south, has long been considered occupied territory and a hotbed of militant activity.
Abu Sayyaf, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, has split into several factions, one of which is led by Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the acknowledged leader of the local Islamic State group in the southern Philippines. Mr. Sawadjaa claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of Our Lady of Mount Carmel last year.
The military’s Western Mindanao Command said in an internal report seen by The New York Times that the first explosion occurred in front of the Paradise Food Plaza in a village called Walled City in downtown Jolo. An initial investigation identified it as an improvised explosive device rigged to a motorcycle. The blast damaged two military vehicles.
“Based on initial findings, a burned motorcycle was seen in the area,” the military said. “This could be the vehicle used by the suspect.”
Gen. Manuel Abu, head of the police in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which includes Jolo, said the first blast was probably meant to draw the authorities to the area.
“The second explosion occurred in front of the first blast site,” he said. “Initially, we sent our bomb experts to investigate,” he said. Then, the second blast hit.
Jolo’s provincial information officer, Sonny Abbing, told a local radio station, “I was near the site when I heard a loud explosion and saw some of police and personnel fell.”
The mayor of Jolo, Kerkhar Tan, issued a lockdown order in the wake of the blasts.
The Philippine Coast Guard in Southwestern Mindanao, as well as in the areas of Sulu, Tawi-tawi, Basilan and Zamboanga, was placed on high alert after the blasts, according to local news reports.
Earlier this month, Philippine troops captured five suspected Abu Sayyaf militants working under the Abu Sayyaf bomb expert Mundi Sawadjaan in Jolo. He escaped, but military officials said they believed that the group had been scouting for possible targets.