Bus, mosque bombed in Zamboanga

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Southern Philippines – Two explosions rocked this city mid this month. The first left seven people injured, including a two year old boy, while the second is leading police to suspect a destabilization plot.

The first attack was clocked at 9:30 p.m. last Aug. 16 and involved a bomb that ripped through the back of Rural Transit Management Inc. (RTMI) bus 9224 as it was approaching the terminal of Barangay Guiwan in the eastern part of the city.

The second was recorded about an hour after. A bomb was detonated outside a mosque in Suterville, in Barangay Campo Islam, which is west of the city. No one was hurt.

In an emergency meeting the following day, the local Crisis Management Committee, chaired by City Mayor Celso Lobregat, passed a resolution creating Task Group 9224-Suterville to investigate the incident.

Subsequently, the task group, headed by Senior Supt. James Mejia, acting Zamboanga City Police chief, released a computer-generated image of one of four possible suspects in the bus bombing.

The four, including one woman, allegedly flagged and boarded the bus as it passed by Barangay Culianan and then disembarked in front of a shopping mall in Barangay Putik, several hundred meters away from the terminal.

The bus plied the Pagadian-Zamboanga City route and is part of a fleet that links Zamboanga City to the provinces of Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Ozamis and Cagayan de Oro cities.

Police speculations

Chief Supt. Napoleon Estilles, Police Regional Office Director for Western Mindanao (PRO 9), suspects that the possible motives for the bombings could either be extortion or terrorism.

Citing how the second bomb was detonated outside a Muslim place of worship during Ramadan, Islam’s most holy celebration, Estilles also speculated that the perpetrators were trying to destabilize the city’s peace and order situation.

Mejia agrees.

Likewise, Estilles said, both incidents could also be linked, with the second intended to throw off investigators. “But it’s not conclusive yet” he nevertheless added, stressing that they have yet to complete their investigation.

Wherever the investigation goes, Zamboanga Chamber of Commerce and Industry Foundation, Inc. (ZCCIFI) president Pedro Rufo Soliven and Professor Ali Yacub, president of the Golden Crescent Consortium, are calling on people to rally behind the city government and local law enforcement in their effort to keep Zamboanga City safe.

The Golden Crescent Consortium is an affiliate of the Inter-Religious Solidarity Movement for Peace.

Security program

RTMI has had a history of receiving demand letters and has a no-payment policy.

Last April 11, a bomb was detonated inside one of its vehicles, bus 2922, as the vehicle was making its way to a terminal in Carmen, North Cotabato. Three people died, including a two-year-old girl, and 16 other passengers were injured.  It was preceded by the receipt of a demand letter.

In 2010, two buses from the same company were likewise bombed in Carmen – one killed, a 17-year old girl, and two wounded – and in Matalam town – 10 dead – as both buses were also about to pull into the terminal. Both were likewise preceded by the receipt of a demand letter.

Police have yet to comment on the apparent similarity in the way the North Cotabato and Zamboanga City bombings were pulled off.

House Deputy Speaker for Mindanao Ma. Isabelle Climaco-Salazar nevertheless disclosed that her office and the police are working closely to draft a security program.

Salazar, who is the city’s first district congresswoman, said the program involves strengthening security along the highway as well as in other areas of this southern port city.

“Police visibility has to be strengthened,” Salazar said of the program that would involve the participation of barangay officials.

Task group

In the meantime, Task Group 9224-Suterville, which is composed of elements from the Zamboanga City Police Office, the Criminal Investigation and Detection Management Branch, crime-scene investigators, intelligence operatives, is focused on identifying and arresting the perpetrators behind the bus and mosque blasts.

Witness accounts helped police come up with an artist’s computer rendered composite sketch of one of the suspects who Mejia described as male, 29-32 years old, medium built, 5’5” to 5’6” in height, and with a dark complexion.

Mejia said they are comparing the computer-generated artist sketch to their rouge gallery for possible identification.

Golden Crescent Consortium’s Yacub is urging people with information to come forward, stressing that maintaining peace and order in the city is a community concern.

Zamboanga Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Soliven agrees, adding that “a peaceful city starts with us in the community, in our respective homes and in ourselves.”

He admitted that the twin bombings send a wrong signal anew to investors but stressed that the business sector in this city has always been initiating steps parallel to city government’s initiatives in bringing in investors.

He stressed that the crime incidents are unfortunate events “but this will not stop us from helping the city government to promote this city as an investment hub even if this again will affect the score cards in terms of investment that other investors are looking for.” (Bong P. Garcia, Jr. for Pecojon.PH/knr)