Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Seven months after insisting that a deadly fire onboard a passenger ferry was not related to terrorism, Philippines President Gloria Arroyo has acknowledged that terrorists detonated a bomb which sparked the devastating blaze.
Her government has filed criminal charges against six members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), a terrorist gang with historic links to al Qaeda, in connection with the attack last February.
Sixty-three bodies were recovered although police say 116 people perished, making it the worst terror attack in the country's history.
Two of the six men indicted were arrested in March; the others remain at large, and they include ASG leaders Khadaffy Janjalani and Abu Sulaiman. Those men already carry a $5-million U.S. reward on their heads for their roles in the kidnapping and killing of Americans.
Arroyo said the ferry blast suspects also were responsible for the May 2001 kidnapping of three Americans - Christian missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham from Kansas and Californian tourist Guillermo Sobero - and 17 Filipinos from a tourist resort.
The terrorists decapitated Sobero, and Martin Burnham died during a military operation that resulted in the rescue of his wife after 376 days in captivity.
The two ASG men in custody, Habil Dellosa and Alhamser Limbong, had confessed to beheading Sobero, Arroyo said.
The 10,000 ton Superferry 14, one of many large vessels plying routes between the islands making up the Philippine archipelago, caught fire on Feb. 27, about 90 minutes after leaving the port of Manila with 900 passengers onboard.
National police spokesman Superintendent Leopoldo Bataoil said an investigation has now concluded that "an explosive device" caused the fire.
Police learned that the ASG had earlier demanded $1 million in protection money from the shipowners, the country's largest shipping company, William Gothong and Aboitiz, Inc.(WG&A).
The group threatened otherwise to "disrupt and destroy their business interest," Bataoil said.
Attempts to get comment Tuesday from a WG&A spokeswoman by phone and email were unsuccessful.
Still at large
The ASG claimed responsibility soon after the ferry disaster. But although witnesses also reported hearing an explosion, Arroyo at the time said there were "no terrorists" involved in the incident.
When the two men were arrested the following month, police also discovered a cache of TNT that the government warned had been obtained for a bombing spree against targets in the capital, including foreign embassies.
But the authorities still did not acknowledge the ASG were behind the ferry disaster and have not done so until now.
Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza said Monday the investigation had taken so long because it had taken five months to raise the half-sunken ferry to enable investigators to get access and reach their conclusions.
Arroyo said she was instructing the security forces to step up the hunt for Janjalani and Sulaiman as well as the two other fugitive accomplices.
The ASG was established in the early 1990s, allegedly with funds provided by Osama bin Laden through his Philippines-based brother-in-law, Muhammed Jamal Khalifa.
The group is based in the jungle-covered islands of Mindanao, a Muslim region in the south of the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines.
There it has been hunted, on and off, by Filipino forces trained by the U.S. military. While dozens of its members have been captured or killed, a remnant of the gang has survived and its leaders remain at large.
Researchers suspect that the ASG may be putting aside the kidnapping-for-ransom tactic and returning to its original stated goal -- to fight for an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.
Mindanao has served as haven and training base for terrorists from outside the Philippines, notably Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the group responsible for the Bali bombings two years ago Tuesday.
Police said one of the ASG suspects in custody, Dellosa, had received explosives training in the Philippines from JI.
Arroyo was stung by U.S. and Australian criticism earlier this year for giving into terrorists' demands to withdraw a military contingent from Iraq or face the execution of a Filipino hostage.
She made the announcement about the ferry investigation on her 100th day in office, when she also said she had asked Congress to pass a bill "to strengthen our fight against terrorism."
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