A string of powerful bombs ripped into the Philippine capital at midday today local time, killing at least 14 people, injuring as many as 100 others and sending thousands of panicked residents rushing from buildings in fear of more blasts.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but there was no shortage of theories. Police made one arrest and hinted that extremist Muslim rebels could be involved. A presidential spokesman implicated communist rebels. And the powerful political opposition hinted at unidentified forces who want to distract the population from President Joseph Estrada’s impeachment trial.
A statement from Estrada’s office appealed for calm and said police would guard public areas, particularly transportation centers.
Five blasts hit Manila in all, the first four — on a train and a bus and at an airport and a park — nearly simultaneously.
Train Blown Apart
The explosion on the train was the most destructive: It blew the light railway transport train’s front coach apart as it pulled into Manila’s Blumentritt Station at noon. At least nine people died and scores were hurt.
Shattered holiday gifts and lunch baskets were strewn for yards around at the busy station. In the coach, emergency workers stepped among bloody newspapers and mangled seats as they covered up corpses.
“The train was approaching when I heard the explosion in the front coach,” said Mari Vicpaglan, a ticket clerk at the railway station. “It was so loud. I tried to help them. I felt dizzy because of the number of people pleading for help.”
Explosions Across City
Elsewhere, a bomb exploded in a bus inside the main bus terminal in Quezon city, in the greater Manila area. At least one person died, 15 were hurt and the terminal was severely damaged.
A third blast came near a large aviation fuel depot at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport. At least six people were hurt, said an airport official, but the fuel depot did not explode.
The fourth bomb exploded on a bench in a park near the U.S. Embassy, wounding at least nine, blasting a two-foot crater in the ground and damaging buildings some 650 feet from the embassy. The bomb apparently was not directed at the embassy itself.
Later in the day, police found a fifth bomb at a gas station near the posh Dusit hotel. They tried to defuse it, but it exploded as they worked, killing one bomb expert immediately. Another died in hospital later.
It was not immediately clear which bombs killed the 13th and 14th victims reported by emergency services.
Residents Fear More Attacks
The attacks left many Manila residents jittery and police swamped with reports of suspicious packages. Several commercial centers were evacuated after false alarms.
Witnesses said a suspicious package on a counter in a shopping mall sparked a stampede as people fled the building. Police bomb experts found mangoes in the package.
The areas hit by the explosions were cordoned off, holding back masses of onlookers, and television stations urged people to stay away from the blast scenes. In a brief television address hours after the bombings, the embattled president — on trial by the Senate after being impeached on corruption charges — tried to calm nerves.
“I assure you we will use all the forces of our law enforcers to halt this violence,” Estrada said. “I have directed the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to mobilize its intelligence agencies.”
Who to Blame
The attacks further darkened a political atmosphere that was already tense as Estrada’s future teeters on the outcome of his trial, which resumes Tuesday. He is accused of massive corruption. Estrada’s press undersecretary, Mike Toledo, denied claims by opposition politicians Saturday that Estrada would declare a state of emergency or martial law.
Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado said police arrested one man who was carrying wires and acting suspiciously around one of the bomb sites. They have not revealed his identity.
Police suggested that the Abu Sayyaf, the smaller of two separatist Muslim groups in the southern Philippines, were to blame. The blasts came a day after Manila-area police were put on alert for holiday bombing attacks by the rebel group.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Maceda pointed his finger at communist rebels who have been fighting the government for more than 30 years. He said intelligence reports show the communist New People’s Army were planning numerous weekend attacks on rural power lines and stations.
The New People’s Army is the major left wing guerrilla group in the Philippines. It has had only informal communication with the Muslim groups.
Muslim Separatists Say They Didn’t Do It
The Philippines has long grappled with a multitude of religious and political conflicts as well as rising crime. In the south, two Muslim separatist guerrilla groups have been fighting for a separate Islamic nation.
The larger group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has been blamed for bombings in Manila in the past. But Eid Kabalu, a MILF spokesman, denied it carried out the bombings. He told DZRN radio in Manila that his group didn’t have the physical capacity to attack on the scale seen today.
The Abu Sayyaf is the more radical of the two groups. On Thursday, police arrested Abu Sayyaf spokesman Hector Janjalani in Manila. They said he had several grenades and sketches of potential targets in the city.
The government has been fighting the Abu Sayyaf rebels for 10 years, but the battle intensified this summer when the guerrillas captured scores of Western hostages in a southern area they control.
The rebels reportedly used the large ransom payments to rearm themselves. The military then launched a fierce assault on the rebels, who are still holding an American and a Filipino hostage.