MANILA -- The Philippine military has conducted airstrikes against Islamic terrorists that killed at least 20 people on Sunday in a church bombing -- a move that comes after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the annihilation of the Abu Sayyaf group.
The strikes were carried out in Sulu province on Tuesday to support ground troops pursuing suspects, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Wednesday. A joint military and police operation killed an Abu Sayyaf militant in nearby Patikul town, he said.
Two bombs exploded minutes apart during Sunday mass in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province. Duterte said the attack was carried out by suicide bombers belonging to the organization that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group. The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist activities, said that IS has claimed responsibility for the bombing.
The church bombing was the first of three fatal attacks in three days in the southern Philippines, an escalation of violence that comes just a week after a vote in the Muslim-majority region for expanded autonomy.
Two people were killed and four were injured early Wednesday in a grenade attack on a local mosque in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga. A bombing Monday in Cotabato province killed one policeman and wounded 11 others.
Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said extremists have likely stepped up attacks to divide people with different religious beliefs.
"The effect is to maintain the level of tension," Casiple said. "Extremism cannot thrive in a peaceful situation."
The military said it is investigating Wednesday's explosion and working to identify the assailant. The victims are religious leaders from Basilan province who visited Zamboanga to teach Islam to children, according to ABS-CBN news.
"We call on the public not to draw speculations and spread fake news in the social media relating this incident to the explosion in Sulu," said Lieutenant General Arnel B. Dela Vega, chief of the Western Mindanao command.
While violence has increased in parts of the Mindanao islands since voters ratified the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, the incidents are not considered to be directly relayed to the Jan. 21 plebiscite. Even so, they works against the objective of the referendum to bring peace to the conflict-ridden region.
Duterte visited the blast site in Sulu on Monday and ordered the military to destroy the Abu Sayyaf group.
"I'm ordering you now: annihilate the Abu by whatever means," he said.