Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared a nationwide “state of lawlessness” Saturday after suspected Abu Sayyaf extremists detonated a bomb that killed 14 people and wounded about 70 in his southern hometown.
An Abu Sayyaf spokesman, Abu Rami, claimed responsibility for the blast near the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Davao University and a five-star hotel, but Duterte said investigators were looking at other possible suspects, including drug syndicates, which he has targeted in a bloody crackdown.
“These are extraordinary times and I supposed that I’m authorized to allow the security forces of this country to do searches,” Duterte told reporters at the scene of the attack, asking the public to cooperate and be vigilant.
“We’re trying to cope up with a crisis now. There is a crisis in this country involving drugs, extrajudicial killings and there seems to be an environment of lawless violence,” said Duterte, who served as mayor of Davao for years before elected to the presidency in June.
The attack came as Philippine forces were on alert amid an ongoing military offensive against Abu Sayyaf extremists in southern Sulu province, which intensified last week after the militants beheaded a kidnapped villager. The militants threatened to launch an unspecified attack after the military said 30 of the gunmen were killed in the weeklong offensive.
Some commanders of the Abu Sayyaf, which is blacklisted by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist organization for deadly bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings, have pledged allegiance to ISIS. The military, however, says there has been no evidence of a direct collaboration and militant action may have been aimed at bolstering their image after years of combat setbacks.
Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said the bomb appeared to have been made from a mortar round and doctors reported many of the victims had shrapnel wounds.
Despite the emergency, Duterte said he would proceed with trips to Brunei, Laos and Indonesia starting Sunday, but a Department of Foreign Affairs official later told The Associated Press that the Brunei leg of Duterte’s first foreign visits has been postponed. At an Asian summit in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, Duterte said in jest that most of the leaders he would meet, including President Barack Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, have had a taste of terrorist attacks.
Police immediately set up more checkpoints in key roads leading to the city, a regional gateway about 610 miles south of Manila. The police force in the capital also went on full alert at midnight.U.S. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that local authorities in the Philippines continue to investigate the cause of the explosion, and the United States stands ready to provide assistance to the investigation.
Obama will have an opportunity to offer his personal condolences to Duterte when the two leaders plan to meet on the sidelines of the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders in Laos next week, Price said.