MANILA - At least 14 people were killed, and dozens injured after an explosion rocked a popular night market in Davao, southern home city of President Rodrigo Duterte, say officials.
It was later said to have been caused by a bomb. “Initial investigations show they found shrapnel from a mortar-based improvised explosive device,” presidential communications secretary Martin Andanar told DZMM radio, according to AFP.
The blast tore through a street market outside the high-end Marco Polo hotel, a frequent haunt of Duterte, who was in the southern city of Davao at the time but was not hurt.
“We were having a meeting and we heard a very huge explosion. The first thing we thought was ‘it’s a bomb’,” said John Rhyl Sialmo III, 20, a student at the nearby Ateneo de Davao University. “The area where there was the explosion was a massage parlour. So we saw these men and women from that place in their uniform, they went to the school lobby to seek help. They were soaked in blood.”
Earlier, in an interview with CNN Philippines, the president's spokesman Ernesto Abella said at least 10 people were killed and 60 injured when the explosion happened at around 10.20pm on Friday (Sept 2).
Acting Davao Mayor Paolo Duterte, Mr Duterte’s son, also later confirmed that “there are at least 10 people who perished” - five men and five women, including three masseuses. Police later said two of at least 30 people taken to hospital had since died, bringing the toll to 12.
“Right now we cannot yet give definite answer to questions as to who is behind this, as we are also trying to determine what really exploded,” Mayor Duterte said in a post on the city government’s Facebook page.
He told reporters that he received a threat of an attack on Davao city from an unidentified source two days ago.
Mr Duterte, 71, who was in Davao preparing for his trip to Brunei on Sunday, was reported to have arrived at the scene.
Investigators on the scene declined to speculate if it was a bomb. There were reports that it could have been liquid petroleum gas explosion, but witnesses said the blast was too powerful for that.
"We were sitting in front of the scene. I first saw smoke, and we thought it was from a barbecue stand. Then a few minutes later, there was a big blast," Mr Janoz Laguihon, a witness, told CNN Philippines.
Another witness, Mr Donn Catre, recounted: : "There was a shockwave. A lot of people were really crying. You can hear the screams. I saw a girl’s leg bloodied, probably shattered."
There were unconfirmed reports of a second bomb.
Regional police chief Manuel Guerlan said a ring of checkpoints had been thrown around the city’s exit points. “A thorough investigation is being conducted to determine the cause of the explosion,” he said. “We call on all the people to be vigilant at all times.”
Presidential spokesman Mr Abella discouraged speculation as to the cause of the explosion.
“Nothing specific… There’s no specific cause or reason at this stage that we can say,” he said.
Days earlier, security officials warned that the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf could launch attacks across the Philippines to divert military operations in their stronghold in Sulu province, 1,000km south of the capital Manila.
Mr Herbert Bautista, mayor of Quezon City, metropolitan Manila’s largest district, ordered police to go on heightened alert, set up security checkpoints and secure vital installations following the Davao incident.
Among the key facilities in the city are the House of Representatives and the National Power Corp.
President Duterte is hugely popular in Davao, having served as its mayor for more than 22 years before his stunning national election win in May, garnered from the popularity of a promised war on drugs. His election has prompted a spike in drug-related killings, with more than 2,000 people killed since he took office on June 30, nearly half of them in police operations.
Duterte has typically spent his weekends in Davao, in the far south of the archipelago nation, since taking office, so his presence there on a Friday was not unusual and he had given a televised news conference earlier in the day.
Davao is located in Mindanao, a large southern island beset by decades of Muslim insurgency. However, Davao itself is largely peaceful and Duterte has been credited with transforming it from a lawless town to a southern commercial hub for call centres and offshore business processing services.
Duterte had earlier on Friday shrugged off rumours of a plot to assassinate him, saying such threats were to be expected.
Asked on Thursday about the same rumour, presidential spokesman Abella described Duterte as heroic and said: “He eats that for breakfast, it’s not something new to him.”
With additional information from Reuters