In the southern Philippines, where insurgencies are rampant, a bombing occurred on Sunday during a Catholic mass that left at least four people dead and scores injured. President Ferdinand Marcos blamed the incident on “foreign terrorists.”
The explosion took place during a morning prayer in the gymnasium of Mindanao State University in Marawi, the capital and largest Muslim city of the nation, which was under attack in 2017 by Islamist militant groups.
According to police Lieutenant General Emmanuel Peralta, the explosion caused by an improvised explosive device resulted in four fatalities and about fifty injuries.
Other security officials said the bombing may have been a retaliatory attack for a series of military operations against Islamist militant groups in recent days.
Photos posted on the Lanao del Sur provincial government’s Facebook page showed several overturned plastic chairs, shattered glass and debris around a black patch on the floor of the gymnasium.
University student Chris Jurado, 21, told AFP from his hospital bed that the explosion happened during the first Bible reading of the morning mass at 7:00 am (2300 GMT Saturday).
“It was really sudden and everyone ran,” Jurado said.
“When I looked behind me people were lying on the floor. We didn’t know what happened because everything happened so fast.”
Rowena Mae Fernandez, 19, said she did not know what the blast was at first — then others started running.
“My companion and I also ran, even though we fell on the ground at one point. That was the only thing I remembered until I got out of the gym and I fell again,” she said from hospital.
“My friends were crying because they saw my injury.”
Marcos condemned the attack by “foreign terrorists”, describing it as “senseless” and “heinous”, while Pope Francis offered his prayers for the victims.
“I am close to the families, to the people of Mindanao, who have already suffered so much,” the pontiff said from his residence in remarks broadcast in Saint Peter’s Square.
Mindanao State University issued a statement condemning “the act of violence” as it suspended classes and deployed more security personnel on the campus.
“We stand in solidarity with our Christian community and all those affected by this tragedy,” the university said.
Marawi city Mayor Majul Gandamra urged members of the Muslim and Christian communities to remain united.
“Our city has long been a beacon of peaceful coexistence and harmony, and we will not allow such acts of violence to overshadow our collective commitment to peace and unity,” Gandamra said in a statement condemning the attack.
angsamoro Government Chief Minister Ahod Ebrahim said he “condemned the atrocious and cowardly acts” and called for a “thorough investigation”.
Decades of instability in the area have seen militant attacks on public markets, buses, and Catholic churches.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the biggest rebel organisation in the country, and Manila signed a peace treaty in 2014 to put an end to their bloody armed uprising.
Still, there are smaller groups of Muslim fighters who are against the peace agreement, including those who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State organisation. There are also communist rebels in the area.