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Philippine church attack clouds outlook for peace in Mindanao

IS claims responsibility for attack days after regional autonomy vote

MANILA -- The fatal bombing of a Catholic church in the Philippines has cast a shadow over prospects for peace in the country's southern islands, just days after the largely Muslim population in the region voted for greater autonomy.

At least 20 people were killed, including five military first responders, and more than 100 were injured after two bombs exploded minutes apart during Sunday mass in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist activities.

While residents in most of the region backed the creation of the new Bangsamoro government in a referendum last Monday, Sulu province voted against inclusion. The region has been under martial law since IS-inspired militants briefly took over the Muslim-majority city of Marawi in May 2017.

Francisco Lara, a senior peace and conflict adviser at International Alert, told the Nikkei Asian Review that while the attack was likely unrelated to the plebiscite, it has wider implications for the incoming autonomous government.

"It could be the work of extremists groups that want to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christian communities in the area," Lara said. "At the end of the day, people in Sulu require protection. The big challenge is how it can provide security and protection in Sulu on the issue of violent extremism."

The military said an initial investigation pointed to the Abu Sayyaf Group, a local terror group loyal to IS, as the perpetrator.

Philippine police chief Oscar Albayalde said that a lockdown had been ordered and roadblocks set up in Jolo. The church has been the target of terror attacks at least six times since 2006.

President Rodrigo Duterte formed a new infantry division in the province last month to bolster anti-terrorism operations. He is to visit victims and their families on Monday, his spokesman said.

Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, a Mindanao-based prelate, said Monday that the Catholic church was concerned by the rise of violent extremism in the southern Philippines.

"It is something that jeopardizes the peace process in Mindanao," he said. "We hope that this bombing of the cathedral will not sidetrack us from the path of lasting peace."

Lara at International Alert said the attack would make it harder for Bangsamoro's transition authority to get Sulu to participate in the new government.

He said that would involve providing economic benefits to an island province that has been largely dependent on cross-border trade, getting local clans and tribes to agree with the change and ensuring security from terrorist attacks.

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