At least three people were killed and dozens wounded in a bomb attack on a Catholic Mass in the insurgency-plagued southern Philippines on Sunday, with President Ferdinand Marcos blaming “foreign terrorists”.
The blast happened during a regular service at Mindanao State University’s gymnasium in Marawi, the country’s largest Muslim city, regional police chief Allan Nobleza said.
“We’re investigating if it’s an IED or grenade throwing,” Mr Nobleza said, referring to an improvised explosive device.
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.
Mr Nobleza said three people had been killed and Lanao del Sur provincial Governor Mamintal Adiong told reporters “more than 40” wounded were being treated in hospital.
Photos posted on the Lanao del Sur government’s Facebook page showed several overturned plastic chairs 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 7am.
“It was really sudden and everyone ran,” Mr 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 explosion 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.
President Marcos condemned the attack by “foreign terrorists”, describing it as “senseless” and “heinous”.
Marawi city Mayor Majul Gandamra urged members of the Muslim and Christian communities to remain unified.
“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,” Mr Gandamra said in a statement.
Mr Nobleza said police were investigating whether the bombing was a revenge attack for a Philippines military air strike on Friday that killed 11 Islamist militants from the Dawlah Islamiyah-Philippines organisation in Mindanao.
The military said on Saturday the group had been planning to mount attacks in Maguindanao del Sur province.
Another line of inquiry was whether remnants of the Maute and Abu Sayyaf militant groups, who had held Marawi under siege in 2017, were involved, Mr Nobleza said.
The Philippine military wrested back the ruined city after a five-month battle that claimed more than a thousand lives, after hundreds of pro-Islamic-State foreign and local fighters had seized it in May 2017.
The country’s Muslim minority were given self-rule under former president Rodrigo Duterte as part of efforts to head off the lure of violent extremism.
Manila signed a peace pact with the nation’s largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, in 2014, ending their deadly armed rebellion.
But smaller bands of Muslim fighters opposed to the peace deal remain, including militants professing allegiance to the Islamic State group.