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14 die as 3 explosions rip through city in the Philippines

©Associated Press
April 22, 2002

MANILA, Philippines -- Three explosions ripped through a major city in the southern Philippines on Sunday, killing at least 14 people and injuring 45 others after a radio-station caller warned of a wave of bombings.

Today there was another small blast on a fishing boat outside the city of General Santos as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo surveyed the damage from Sunday's bombs and met with the mayor. No injuries were reported in the latest explosion.

Police blamed unspecified "terrorists," and arrested two suspects in a pre-dawn raid today. The two men, Bobby Sabilo and Mulikin Adam Ambi, were identified as members of the Muslim separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The man who gave the radio station advance warning of the explosions called back today and said they were retribution for alleged attacks against Muslim civilians by the Philippine military in its war against the extremist Abu Sayyaf group, the target of a U.S.-backed offensive on nearby Basilan island.

The caller claimed to be a member of the Abu Sayyaf, which has been holding an American missionary couple for nearly 11 months.

Sunday's largest blast exploded outside a busy department store in downtown General Santos, killing at least 14 people -- four of them children -- in a hail of shrapnel and flying glass. Within 40 minutes, bombs went off near a radio station and a bus terminal in the largely Christian city of 800,000 in the Mindanao region, where Islamic militants have been fighting for an independent homeland.

The scene of blood, wreckage and shattered glass was reminiscent of five nearly simultaneous bombings in Manila 16 months ago that killed 22 people. An Indonesian man who has claimed he planned those blasts pleaded guilty Thursday in General Santos to explosives possession after leading police to a buried cache of more than a ton of TNT, detonating cords and M-16 rifles.

Radio Mindanao Network in nearby Koronadal said it received a call an hour before the first blast from a man who earlier called to complain about police boasts that the city was safe from terrorists. The man asked whether the station wanted to cover bombings later in the day.

A separate warning circulated via cellphone text message -- a chief method of communications in the Philippines -- said 18 bombs had been planted around the city and would start exploding after lunch.

Police said they received an anonymous call with the same claim, but did not say what measures they took. Bomb threats are common in the Philippines.

Radio station manager Elmer Ubaldo said he decided not to air the warning because he did not want to cause panic. The caller identified himself as Abu Muslim al-Ghazie and said he represented al Harakatul al-Islamiyah, the formal name used by Abu Sayyaf. Other spokesmen for the group said they had no knowledge of Abu Sayyaf involvement.

The Abu Sayyaf, believed to have ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, and the fundamentalist Moro Islamic Liberation Front have been blamed for setting off bombs in General Santos in the past.

The city is about 130 miles from Basilan island, where the Abu Sayyaf has been holding Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan., and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap for nearly 11 months. About 160 U.S. Special Forces troops are on the island on a six-month counterterrorism training mission aimed at helping the Philippine military crush the guerrillas, who have beheaded an American and other hostages.

The first bomb exploded in a three-wheel motorcycle taxi parked in front of the two-story Gensan Fitmart department store in the business district of General Santos, about 620 miles southeast of Manila.

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