DAVAO, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared a nationwide “state of lawlessness” Saturday after suspected Abu Sayyaf extremists detonated a bomb that killed 14 people and wounded about 70 in his southern hometown.
Duterte, who inspected the scene of Friday night’s attack at a night market in downtown Davao city, said his declaration did not amount to an imposition of martial law. It allows troops to be deployed in urban centers to back up the police in setting up checkpoints and increasing patrols, he said.
An Abu Sayyaf spokesman, Abu Rami, claimed responsibility for the blast near the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Davao University and a five-star hotel, but Duterte said investigators were looking at other possible suspects, including drug syndicates, which he has targeted in a bloody crackdown.
“These are extraordinary times and I supposed that I’m authorized to allow the security forces of this country to do searches,” Duterte told reporters at the scene of the attack, asking the public to cooperate and be vigilant.
“We’re trying to cope up with a crisis now. There is a crisis in this country involving drugs, extrajudicial killings and there seems to be an environment of lawless violence,” said Duterte, who served as mayor of Davao for years before being elected president in June.
The attack came as Philippine forces were on alert amid an ongoing military offensive against Abu Sayyaf extremists in southern Sulu province that intensified last week after the militants beheaded a kidnapped villager. The militants threatened to launch an unspecified attack after the military said 30 of the gunmen were killed in the weeklong offensive.
Rami is the son-in-law of Mohammad Said, an influential militant commander who used the nom de guerre Amah Maas and was killed in the ongoing Sulu offensive. Davao Vice Mayor Paulo Duterte, the president’s son, also told reporters that militants linked to the Islamic State group had threatened the progressive city.
Some commanders of the Abu Sayyaf, which is blacklisted by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist organization for deadly bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings, have pledged allegiance to IS. The military, however, says there has been no evidence of a direct collaboration and militant action may have been aimed at bolstering their image after years of combat setbacks.
Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said that the bomb appeared to have been made from a mortar round and that doctors reported many of the victims had shrapnel wounds.
Despite the emergency, Duterte said he would proceed with trips to Brunei, Laos and Indonesia starting Sunday, but a Department of Foreign Affairs official later told The Associated Press that the Brunei leg of Duterte’s first foreign visits has been postponed. At an Asian summit in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, Duterte said in jest that most of the leaders he would meet, including President Barack Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, have had a taste of terrorist attacks.
Armando Morales, a 50-year-old masseur, said the explosion threw him off his chair, adding that the blast had an upward force and emitted smoke but no fireball that could have killed more people. He saw at least 10 people lying bloodied on the ground, mostly fellow masseurs and their customers.
“I helped tie their wounds to prevent blood loss,” the still-dazed Morales said. “They were pale like dead already.”
Police immediately set up more checkpoints in key roads leading to the city, a regional gateway about 980 kilometers (610 miles) south of Manila. The police force in the capital also went on full alert at midnight.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that local authorities in the Philippines continue to investigate the cause of the explosion, and the United States stands ready to provide assistance to the investigation.
Obama will have an opportunity to offer his personal condolences to Duterte, with the two leaders planning to meet on the sidelines of the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders in Laos next week, Price said.