Bukidnon Bus Bombing
A provincial passenger bus in Bukidnon, Maramag, was targeted for a bombing attack last Tuesday, December 9th, 2014, leaving at least ten dead and several others injured.
The attack occurred across from the Central Mindanao University in Bukidnon’s Barangay Mus-wan at the time students were leaving for home, exploding in late afternoon after picking up passengers on the way to Cagayan De Oro. Five of the fatalities were students of the University. A spokesman for the Philippine Military said on Wednesday that the bombing may have been an act of terrorism, although authorities are also seriously considering extortion as an angle for motive.
The spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Col. Resty Padilla, told GMA News TV’s News To Go that an extremist group may be behind the deadly incident, since an improvised explosive device (IED) was found on the field. Initial investigation revealed unexploded rounds of mortar which may have been used to make the IED. Padilla adds that a group may be targeting the bus company Rural Transmit Mindanao Inc. (RTMI), since this is the second bus bombing in Maramag. Five weeks ago, on November 6, four people were injured in another RTMI bus explosion.
Armed Forces Information Chief Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc told CBN News reporters that the military will support the law enforcement agencies in investigating the incident and in bringing the perpetrators to justice, saying, “We will also extend our full cooperation in ensuring the security and safety of the riding public … Terrorism cannot be justified on any ground or for any purpose. The Filipino people must strongly condemn every act of terrorism and senseless violence against our fellowmen.”
Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway rebel group from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have been suspected to be behind the attack. ABS-CBN News has reported on the military’s insistence that the bomb attack was done by the BIFF. The BIFF has already denied any involvement. According to reports, the MILF is currently working with the government to establish the Bangsamoro Political Entity, aimed at achieving lasting peace in Muslim Mindanao after decades of conflict.
December 10, a day after the incident; the GMA Network reports that extortion syndicates or possibly an extremist group are being considered as being behind the bombing. The individual or group may have been the same; rounds of mortar were used in both incidents. Police have reported that the IED was cellular-phone-triggered, and could be the handiwork of a terrorist group, although extortionist groups are also blamed for past bombing incidents in Mindanao.
RTMI may also be barred from plying the Bukidnon routes if it doesn’t cooperate in ongoing investigation into the bombing, says Bukidnon governor Jose Maria Zubiri Jr., who is said to be convinced of extortion as a motive rather than terrorism, even though the bus company denies this being the case and further denies having received any extortion demand from any group prior to the incident. The transportation company promised to help pay for the medical bills of the injured passengers.
Reuters reports another kind of story, that the bomb attack was intended by the BIFF to derail a peace deal with Muslim rebels, quoting an army official as saying, “[The BIFF] don’t want the peace process to succeed.”
By December 11, Thursday, security analyst Ace Esmeralda still says it is too early to blame the BIFF for the bus bombing. And yet Philstar reports criminal charges being filed against the leader of BIFF, identified as being behind Tuesday’s bomb attack, after being positively identified by witnesses. A military intelligence official said, “It had the trademark of a bombing carried out by the BIFF in the past. The improvised explosive device used was an 81mm mortar and the way it was exploded is consistent with the pattern of the BIFF.”
However, the local officials of Bukidnon still declare that extortionists were responsible for both bombings of the two RTMI buses. Gov. Zubirir said this was the consensus of local officials during an emergency meeting with the military and the police, adding that they had discussed all the angles of the incident.
By December 12, security officials are convinced that a big extortion ring, not the BIFF, is behind the deadly attack. As reported by Philstar, there are big extortion gangs in central Mindanao, among them Al-Khobar, preying on transportation companies and commercial establishments in the region. Al-Khobar had been implicated in more than 20 bus bombings in the adjoining Maguindanao, Sutan Kudarat, North Cotabato and South Cotabato provinces between 2003 and 2013.
Key members of the Region 12 Peace and Order Council said the police should investigate deeper on Tuesday’s bombing. “If we immediately point an accusing finger to the BIFF we could possibly end up allowing the real culprits to go scot-free,” one of the sources said. Another source, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisal, said that while the BIFF had hundreds of members, it has limited capability to operate in Bukidnon, a predominantly Christian area. A local official adds, “Even before the BIFF emerged in 2010, the Al-Khobar was already operating with impunity in many areas in Central Mindanao and some of its members charged with criminal offenses in connection with the group’s activity are Visayans.”
The Daily Tribune quotes Lt. Gen. Aurelio Baladad, commander of the military’s Eastern Mindanao Command, as saying that RTMI is the same transport company that experience extort tries from criminal groups in the past, including the Al-Khobar group. Baladad assures that the government is currently creating an inter-agency unit, whose task is to prevent further bombings in Mindanao.
Gov. Zubiri said security has been tightened all over the province and that checkpoints are put up to screen buses passing by to their terminal destinations. Aside from bus inspections using K9 bomb detectors, passengers would also be individually frisked. “Anything within the law,” Zubiri said. He maintains that the attack was specifically meant for RMTI, saying that if the intention of the perpetrators was to harm people, they could have done so at the time of their month-long celebration for their 100 years as a province when thousands of visitors came. “They could have done that at that time.”
Meanwhile, a day after that fatal event, students from Central Mindanao University (CMU) light candles at the main gate of CMU. After losing friends and classmates, many of the students say they now shun riding buses. As reported by the Daily Inquirer, some expressed the fear that the perpetrators would target the school in Musuan in Barangay Dologon. A freshman told reporters during the candle-lighting that he had decided to go home only once a week and take another mode of transport, afraid to get on a bus. Another freshman says fears are worsened by text messages claiming another attack to be staged.
Defense Secretary Voltair Gazmin condemned the attack as barbaric, and vowed that the military and police will get to the bottom of it. “The DND [Department of National Defense] through the AFP is in full support and cooperation with the PNP [Philippine National Police] to get to the bottom of this barbaric act.” He adds, “We also ask the help and cooperation of our fellow Filipinos in providing related information which may lead to the identification and arrest of the perpetrators that we may bring them to justice.”