Suspects Arrested in Philippine Airport Bombing

July 7, 2008 - 8:13 PM

((1st Add: Updated information on casualties and police response to the attacks is included.)

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Philippine police have arrested several men in connection with a deadly bombing at an international airport in the southern part of the country Tuesday amid continuing speculation about the perpetrators of the worst single terrorist attack in the country in seven years.

A bomb placed in a backpack exploded outside a busy airport terminal in Davao, a predominantly Christian city of 1.2 million people, early Tuesday evening local time. Mindanao Police Chief Edgardo Aglipay told Philippine television the bombers had used TNT.

An American, identified by the Southern Baptist International Mission Board as 59-year-old missionary William Hyde, was among at least 20 people killed. Others included two children and several women, police said.

With at least 20 of the more than 140 wounded described to be in serious condition, the death toll may rise further.

Hyde, a veteran missionary from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the father of two children, died during surgery from severe head and leg injuries sustained in the blast, the Richmond, Va.-based Board said.

Three other Americans were among those wounded. The Board identified two as Barbara Wallis Stevens, 33, and her 10-month-old son, Nathan, members of another missionary family.

Spokesman Larry Cox said the Board was moving quickly to help the families affected by the tragedy and asked Christians everywhere to pray for them and their co-workers in the Philippines.

A second, smaller bomb exploded about an hour later at a health center in another Mindanao city. One person was killed and two injured, according to provincial authorities.

Filipino police have tightened security throughout Mindanao as well as in Manila, focusing on foreign embassies, the public transportation system, district housing oil depots and other sensitive public places, according to a local radio report.

A spokesman for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Ignacio Bunye, confirmed the arrests but could give no further details.

Arroyo, who called the bombing "a brazen act of terrorism that will not go unpunished," held an emergency Cabinet security meeting late Tuesday. She plans to visit the bombsite Wednesday.

President Bush denounced the bombing and offered to work closely with Manila to track down the killers.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer praised the Arroyo government, saying it had fought "valiantly in the war on terror."

No group has claimed responsibility for the blast, but the area offers many potential suspects.

Davao City is the capital of Mindanao, the southern Philippines region where Islamic militants have been waging a long and bloody campaign for a separate Muslim state.

The U.S. last year collaborated with Philippine armed forces in a six-month anti-terror training exercise centered on Mindanao's Basilan island, targeting the smallest but arguably most vicious of the extremist organizations, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).

Another joint exercise has been slated for this year in another part of Mindanao, Sulu, where the remnants of the ASG are believed to be hiding.

The plan ran into trouble recently after Washington and Manila disagreed over whether U.S. participants could engage in actual combat against the terrorists - which Philippines critics said would violate their constitution.

Discussions are continuing about the proposed mission, and Bunye said earlier Tuesday that alternative venues - where the likelihood of confrontation between the Americans and ASG gunmen - were being considered.

Security analyst Paul Burton noted Tuesday that the Davao bombing - and a spate of other recent attacks on infrastructure targets in the south - coincided with the planned deployment of U.S. troops.

If the exercise went ahead, the remaining months of Arroyo's administration were "likely to be characterized by heightened militant activity against high-profile targets," predicted Burton, who is Southeast Asian editor for Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments.

The recent attacks he referred to have been blamed on a larger separatist group in the south, the 12,500-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

In a Philippine radio interview, a spokesman for the group, Eid Kabalu, denied responsibility for the Davao bombing, claiming the MILF only attacked "military targets."

The MILF has been the subject of a recent army clampdown in central Mindanao, an offensive that cost the lives of 200 of its fighters.

Military officials have raised concerns recently about a tactical alliance between Islamic and communist rebels of the New People's Army (NPA).

The 12,000-strong NPA has been fighting since the late 1960s to establish a Marxist state in the Philippines. Experts say about 40,000 people have died during the rebellion, including a U.S. Army colonel shot dead in Manila in 1989.

The U.S. State Department last year declared the group a "foreign terrorist organization," a designation that blocks its assets and denies members U.S. visas.

Al Qaeda

The Philippines has also been used as a training and recruiting ground by Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the Southeast Asian terrorist network suspected by Indonesian investigators to have been behind last October's bombing in Bali, in which more than 200 people were killed.

Security researchers have described JI as the Asian arm of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, and a number of top al Qaeda operatives - including the recently captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - have spent time in the region.

Mohammed himself visited the Philippines in 1995 and is suspected of being involved in a conspiracy hatched there to assassinate Pope John Paul II during a visit to the country.

He was indicted in a New York court in 1996 for his alleged involvement in a plot - also based in the Philippines - to bomb 12 American airliners flying routes to the U.S. from Southeast Asia in January 1995. The plot was blown when the conspirators started an accidental fire in a Manila apartment.

Speaking several hours before Tuesday's bombing, Manila presidential spokesman Bunye raised the possibility of continuing al Qaeda presence in the country.

"Our intelligence community has long confirmed the presence of extremist cells in the country and their links to al Qaeda," he told a press briefing.

"We are not discounting the possibility that some of Khalid's cohorts are seeking refuge here. We must be aware of the transnational nature of terrorism and the need for allied and global action to fight this threat."

Al Qaeda is also linked to the Philippines via the ASG, which was started in the early 1990s with funding provided by bin Laden, according to terrorism experts.

The group became notorious for kidnappings and the brutal slaying of captives.

Among its victims were two Americans. California tourist Guillermo Sobero was beheaded in 2001, and missionary Martin Burnham was killed last year during a rescue attempt mounted by U.S.-trained Philippines forces.

The death toll in Tuesday's bombing makes it the worst single terrorist attack in the Philippines since 1996, when gunmen suspected to have been from the ASG killed more than 50 people in an attack on the Mindanao town of Ipil.

See Earlier Story:

Confusion about US Role Sparks Anger in Philippines (Feb. 25, 2003)

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