Two bombs have exploded outside a Roman Catholic cathedral on a southern Philippine island where Muslim militants are active, killing at least 27 people and injuring more than 70 during a Sunday mass.
Police said at least 27 people died and 77 were injured. The dead included 20 civilians and seven soldiers. Among the injured were 14 soldiers, two police officers and 61 civilians.
The initial explosion scattered the wooden pews inside the main hall of the cathedral and blasted window glass panels.
The second bomb hurled human remains and debris across a town square fronting the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, witnesses said. Mobile phone signal was cut off in the first hours after the attack.
Photos on social media showed debris and bodies lying on a busy street outside the cathedral, which has been hit by bombs in the past.
“We will pursue to the ends of the Earth the ruthless perpetrators behind this dastardly crime until every killer is brought to justice and put behind bars. The law will give them no mercy,” the office of President Rodrigo Duterte said.
Troops in armoured vehicles sealed off the main road leading to the church while vehicles were transporting the dead and wounded to the hospital.
Some casualties were evacuated by air to nearby Zamboanga city.
“I have directed our troops to heighten their alert level, secure all places of worship and public places at once, and initiate proactive security measures to thwart hostile plans,” Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
What is behind Jolo’s violent history
Jolo island has long been troubled by the presence of Abu Sayyaf militants, who are blacklisted by the US and the Philippines as a terrorist organisation because of years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings.
No-one has immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
It came nearly a week after Muslims in the neighbouring island of Mindanao overwhelmingly approved the creation of a new autonomous region in the predominantly Roman Christian nation.
The move is aimed at ending nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion that has left 150,000 people dead.
Citizens across the Philippines were allowed to vote in the referendum, and while most of the Muslim areas approved the autonomy deal, voters in Sulu province (where Jolo is located) rejected it.
The province is home to a rival rebel faction that is opposed to the deal as well as smaller militant cells that not part of any peace process.
Western governments have welcomed the autonomy pact.
They worry small numbers of Islamic State-linked militants from the Middle East and South-East Asia could forge an alliance with local insurgents and turn the south into a breeding ground for extremists.
Aside from the small but brutal Abu Sayyaf group, other militant groups in Sulu include a small band of young jihadis aligned with the Islamic State group, which has also carried out assaults, including ransom kidnappings and beheadings.
Abu Sayyaf militants are still holding at least five hostages — a Dutch national, two Malaysians, an Indonesian and a Filipino — in their jungle bases mostly near Sulu’s Patikul town, not far from Jolo.
Government forces have pressed on sporadic offensives to crush the militants, including those in Jolo, a poverty-wracked island of more than 700,000 people.
A few thousand Catholics live mostly in the capital of Jolo.
Security officials were looking “at different threat groups and they still can’t say if this has something to do with the just-concluded plebiscite”, Mr Albayalde said.
The cathedral is located in Jolo town centre in front of a square and near a budget hotel, a bank and commercial stores as well as a public market.