MANILA - Britain has warned its citizens against travelling to the insurgency-wracked southern Philippine island of Mindanao after a bomb went off at a mainly Muslim city there on Monday (Dec 31), killing two and wounding dozens.
Philippine security officials are linking the blast outside a shopping mall in Cotabato city in central Mindanao to two small militant groups that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
"Terrorist groups continue to plan attacks and have the capacity and the intent to carry out attacks at any time and anywhere in the country, including in places visited by foreigners, like airports, shopping malls, public transport, including the metro system, and places of worship," Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in an update to its travel advisory on its website.
It advised British citizens to avoid travelling to western and central Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, and limit "all but essential travel" to the rest of Mindanao, an island the size of South Korea.
The travel advisory also referred to the warning last month by the United States that security at Manila's main airport was not "consistent" with International Civil Aviation Organisation standards.
"That's fair warning," Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin responded in a tweet on Wednesday (Jan 2).
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a text message the travel advisory "is normal and ordinary".
"It is an automatic and default warning of governments to their nationals like we also do when these things happen in other countries," he added.
But Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano, a former military chief, disagreed with it.
"There is no need for foreign governments to issue a travel advisory in Mindanao areas because incidents of explosions and presence of terror groups are isolated cases," he told GMA News Online.
Major-General Cirilito Sobejana, chief of the 6th Infantry Division, told reporters on Wednesday security forces remained on alert for attacks by militants on cities in central Mindanao where nine-tenth of the population is Muslim.
"It is always the intention of terrorists to sow fear in the public's mind. So they continue to smuggle improvised explosive devices (IEDs)... Every now and then, there's a threat of an IED explosion. But we've generally managed to intercept them… It's just this one time when they managed to slip by us," he said.
He said investigators were looking into the involvement of two ISIS-inspired groups: one calls itself "Daulah Islamiyah" and the Toraife faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
Security officials earlier cited threats from these groups as one reason why martial rule should remain across Mindanao.
Government forces launched an offensive against Daulah Islamiyah last month, and at least seven militants died in the fighting.
"This is a part of the retaliation. But the problem is they're victimising innocent civilians," Maj-Gen Sobejana told reporters.
He said a plebiscite set for this month to ratify a long-awaited law to allow minority Muslims in Mindanao to start moving towards self-rule by 2022 could have also precipitated the attack in Cotabato.
"There's election fever because of the plebiscite. There's an intense rivalry among politicians supporting and against the BOL (Bangsamoro Organic Law)," he said.
The BOL is the culmination of a lengthy and rocky process towards a peace accord between the government and the separatists. In the interim, militants linked to ISIS managed to expand their influence, evident clearly from their devastating occupation of Marawi City in 2017.
In the capital Manila, meanwhile, some 7,000 policemen are being deployed to secure a mammoth Catholic procession next week.
Over two million devotees are expected to flock to Manila on Jan 9 to join a day-long procession of an iconic, 400-year-old image of Jesus Christ.
The "Black Nazarene" - so-called because of its charred-coloured exterior - stirs a religious frenzy in the country, as it is believed to perform miracles. Four in five people in the Philippines are Catholic and Muslims are largely restricted to the south of the archipelago.
Security forces took extraordinary measures in 2017 following reports that terrorists were planning to disrupt that year's procession.