Former Muslim rebel may have been target in Philippines bombing

Congressman Wahab Akbar backed operations against Al Qaeda linked Abu Sayyaf guerrillas.

A bomb explosion at the Philippines House of Representatives in Manila Tuesday evening killed four people, including the suspected target, Congressman Wahab Akbar, a former Muslim rebel who backed operations against an alleged terrorist group. This is the first time the Philippines Congress has been hit, though there is speculation that an individual, not the location, was the target.

Initial reports said the blast occurred at the south wing entrance of Parliament, just as lawmakers were leaving the building, reports The Philippines Star. A suspected car bomb exploded outside the entrance lobby of the Batasan complex in Quezon City last night, killing Basilan Rep. Wahab Akbar and a driver and wounding at least 12 others.

… The other fatality was identified as Marcial Rualdo, driver of Gabriela party-list Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan. The two injured congressmen were Ilagan and Negros Oriental Rep. Henry Teves. Teves' niece Ma-an Bustalino was also reportedly injured and is in critical condition.
Metro Manila and Regions 3 and 4 have been placed under red alert.

The remotely detonated bomb collapsed the ceiling at the building's entrance and damaged cars, reports the Associated Press. The AP quoted Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno, who said the target appeared to be Representative Akbar, a former rebel who as governor of southern Basilan province supported military operations against Al Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf guerrillas.

Akbar was Basilan governor when U.S. troops arrived on the island in 1992 to train Filipino soldiers battling Abu Sayyaf. Over the years, the island was gradually transformed from a militant hotbed into a showcase of counterterrorism success and humanitarian development.
The key Abu Sayyaf leaders were killed last year in a clash with Philippine marines on neighboring Jolo island. But some of the group's fighters regrouped and returned to Basilan, where they have joined with other guerrillas to stage sporadic attacks.

Mr. Puno sought to play down the possible involvement of Muslim extremists, however, the AP said, noting that Akbar also had many political foes, including those who ran against one of his wives, who succeeded him as Basilan governor. "Political rivalries in the southern Philippines are often accompanied by bloodshed, and assassinations of politicians are common."

In a related development, National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales revealed that authorities received an intelligence report three weeks ago about threats on Akbar's life, according to the online news portal of Philippine TV station ABS-CBN News. "He, however, said that officials did not expect that the attack would be carried out in Metro Manila."

President Arroyo on Wednesday offered a P5 million [a little over $100,000] reward for anyone who can help prevent a repeat of the attack.
… Earlier, the President formed a task force against political violence to mobilize government agencies, political groups and sectoral organizations to prevent political violence in the country. Its task includes investigation and prosecution of those who would be found to have involvement in incidents of political violence.
Small-scale bombings in Mindanao, where there are long-running communist and Muslim insurgencies, and political murders are common in the Philippines, but central government offices have not been targeted before.
Last month, 11 people were killed and about 120 injured in an explosion at the Glorietta mall in Makati City. Police have said a build up of gases was the likely cause but a final report has yet to be released and the owners of the center, Ayala Land Inc., have disputed the police's preliminary findings.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has ordered the country's police chief, Avelino Razon, to lead an investigation into the blast, reports The New York Times, which drew attention to suspected links between Abu Sayyaf and Al Qaeda.

Several terrorist groups are active in the Philippines, including Abu Sayyaf, which has been responsible for some of the worst attacks in the country's recent history. Western countries, led by the United States, have offered millions of dollars in aid and security assistance to help the Philippine government fight both Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah, the terrorist network in Indonesia that is accused of having ties to Al Qaeda.

The Australian reports that Akbar had "spoken in the past of his links with Abubakar Janjalani, an Afghan-trained Islamic firebrand who founded the Abu Sayyaf initially to fight for an independent state in the Philippine south."

After Janjalani was killed in a gunbattle with police in 1998, Akbar severed ties with the group and later joined the mainstream to seek elective office.
The police chief said cellphone text messages, purportedly from the Abu Sayyaf, were circulating that claimed responsibility for the bombing but added: "We are not taking that hook, line and sinker."

Xinhua news agency reported early Wednesday that an Abu Sayyaf leader had denied that the group was responsible for the explosion. Commander Kumander Noth Mudalam also denied that Abdul Mushaf, who claimed responsibility for the group through cellphone text messages is a member of Abu Sayyaf.

The blasts occurred just a day before talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front resumed Malaysian-brokered peace talks in Kuala Lumpur, reports Malaysian news agency Bernama.

Peace negotiators representing the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) meeting here are to seek a year's extended stay of the Malaysia-led International Monitoring Team (IMT) in Mindanao in southern Philippines.
... Over the past three years, Malaysia has led the IMT with 60 personnel while Brunei and Libya have sent 10 and five military officers respectively. Japan is participating in terms of development of the region.
No casualties were reported during the period, an achievement considering that about 120,000 people have died and two million have gone missing since the conflict between the two sides began in the 60's.

The MILF has been fighting for a separate homeland in Mindanao, whose 16 million people include four million Muslims, said Bernama. "Peace talks stalled in September last year after the Philippine government and the MILF failed to agree on the issue of ancestral domain, which refers to the MILF demand for territory that will constitute a Muslim homeland."

Officials expect to hold another round of exploratory talks in mid-December before the possible resumption of full-fledged negotiations in early 2008, reports the Associated Press.

The Philippine and U.S. governments hope an agreement with the MILF could transform its vast rural strongholds in the southern Mindanao region into hubs of economic growth instead of just conflict zones that could be used to harbor al-Qaida-linked militants.
Military officials have often accused the MILF of providing sanctuary to members of the Abu Sayyaf extremist group and Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah. The MILF has denied any links.

The blast occurred amid heightened political tensions in the country, as President Gloria Arroyo faced a third impeachment attempt in as many years. Hearings resumed the day after the blast. ABS-CBN News reported that the impeachment complaint had been dismissed Wednesday by the House Committee on Justice, declaring it "insufficient in substance."

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