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Philippine Police Blame Abu Sayyaf

October 3, 2002

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ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) _ The al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group was responsible for a bombing that killed an American Green Beret commando and two Filipinos outside a restaurant frequented by U.S. troops based in the troubled southern Philippines, the national police chief said Thursday.

Gen. Hermogenes Ebdane said the driver of a motorcycle in which the nail-packed bomb was stashed had been identified as a member of the Abu Sayyaf from a sketch based on witness accounts and his body. The man was killed when the bomb went off.

Ebdane was asked by The Associated Press about reports that the Abu Sayyaf or the communist New People’s Army was responsible for the blast in an open-air market that also injured 25 people, including another Green Beret.

``It’s not NPA. It’s Abu Sayyaf,″ he said.

A Philippine military report also blamed the Abu Sayyaf.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack. But the Abu Sayyaf warned last week it would mount attacks on civilian, military and U.S. targets to retaliate for the ongoing government offensive against Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines.

The explosion occurred in Zamboanga, where security already had been tightened in advance of an Oct. 12 Christian festival in the middle of the sprawling archipelago’s southern Muslim heartland.

The Green Berets, based at Camp Enrile, were part of a U.S. contingent of about 260 personnel deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, which has helped train the Philippine military to fight the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf gang, notorious for kidnappings and beheadings.

Officials were looking into the possibility of a suicide attack, which is believed would be the first of its kind in the Philippines, or whether the powerful bomb went off prematurely. ABS-CBN television reported that similar bombs have been used by suicide bombers in the Middle East.

The investigators included five plainclothes Americans, who used rubber gloves to pick up nails or pluck them from trees, then sniffed them for traces of explosives before putting them in evidence bags.

Brig. Gen. Eduardo Purificacion speculated the bomb may have exploded early.

``We do not know where the bomb was supposed to be brought,″ he said. ``The driver of the motorcycle loaded with the bomb stopped and was checking something in his motorcycle when the bomb exploded.″

U.S. Army Capt. Catherine Morelle-Oliveria, spokeswoman for the U.S. forces in Zamboanga, said the Green Berets had stopped to buy food from a restaurant when the explosion occurred in an open-air market.

``We grieve for the loss of our brother, but we continue with our mission and we support his family and the other members of his unit at this time,″ she said.

The injured American was initially treated by U.S. military medics and was to be flown outside the country for further evaluation. The body of the slain Green Beret was to be flown to Okinawa, Japan.

RMN radio reported that the motorcycle driver was identified as a 33-year-old man from Dipolog city in Zamboanga province.

In early September, the government said it was intensifying security after a suspected al-Qaida member told U.S. interrogators that the terror group planned to attack unspecified targets in the Philippines.

A homemade bomb also went off Wednesday near the perimeter fence of a police headquarters in Imus town, in Cavite province south of Manila, damaging a parked car but causing no injuries, GMA7 television reported.

A Philippine military official said officials were trying to see if the two situations were linked to the blast in Zamboanga, about 530 miles south of Manila.

More troops were being sent to Zamboanga, and checkpoints set up on major roads and outside the city’s power plant.

Some 1,200 U.S. troops were deployed this year in the Philippines to train the country’s military to battle Abu Sayyaf in the southern islands. After the training exercise ended in July, the troops left, except for about 272 U.S. soldiers who remained, most in Zamboanga, for a humanitarian mission on nearby Basilan Island, once the center of Abu Sayyaf operations.

The 8:30 p.m. blast in Zamboanga ripped the roof off a small wooden house and damaged six shops across the street from the Camp Enrile army base, where some U.S. troops have been staying.

Bomb experts on Wednesday collected debris at the site. Only the charred handlebars and frame remained of the motorcycle. Two Americans in civilian clothes stood nearby talking on cell phones. Philippine soldiers walked sniffer dogs in the area.

U.S. military support helped Filipino troops decimate the Abu Sayyaf with a monthslong offensive over the summer on Basilan. But in early September, the government said it was sending reinforcements to another nearby island, Sulu, to wipe out an Abu Sayyaf faction there.

Abu Sayyaf guerrillas seized 102 hostages, including three Americans, in a yearlong kidnapping spree. In a bloody army rescue attempt, American missionary Martin Burnham and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap were killed, while Burnham’s wife, Gracia, was wounded but survived.

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