OLO, Sulu -- The blast ripped through the Sulu Consumers Cooperative store shortly after the lunch break at 1:15 p.m. yesterday.
People rushed out of the grocery and dry goods store and, moments later, when the smoke cleared nine people lay dead -- mostly store employees. More than 20 others were injured, including a year-old boy who lost an eye, according to the local Red Cross.
The injured, some in critical condition, were rushed to the Sulu General Hospital.
Senior Supt. Ahirum Ajirim, provincial police director, said a young man had been arrested in connection with the bombing, but no details were disclosed. Police in Manila said the man had a .45-cal. pistol, an Icom radio and a remote control device.
Ajirim said the blast was so powerful it tore down the walls of the town's biggest store. "Half of the establishment is destroyed," he said.
The device was believed to have been planted in the baggage counter.
A 30-year-old woman, who identified herself only as Amina, said she dove under a parked tricycle when she heard the explosion.
"I did not know how I was able to do that. All I was thinking of was to stay away from harm," said Amina, who suffered bruises.
Looters with rescuers
From underneath the tricycle, Amina said she saw people running in all directions, most of them shouting and crying as bursts of gunfire rang out. Locals explained that people here, including policemen, fire their guns in the air during emergencies to alert residents.
Dr. Judel Isahac of the Red Cross said that when volunteer workers arrived at the store shortly after the incident, they found mangled bodies strewn near the entrance.
As they were recovering the dead and the injured, he said unidentified people rushed into the store, emptying the cash registers and hauling off goods.
A Philippine National Police spokesperson said he could not say whether terrorists were involved.
"It would be premature to say so at this time," Senior Supt. Samuel Pagdilao said.
He said US bomb experts were helping determine the type of device used. The Americans are part of the large contingent of US troops on a humanitarian mission in Jolo.
It was the second bombing incident in Jolo this year. On Feb. 18, a man was killed and 28 others were wounded in an explosion in a videoke bar.
The island is a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked to the Jemaah Islamiyah, Osama bin Laden's Southeast Asian arm.
The Moro National Liberation Front also exerts a big influence in Jolo proper, a police officer said, speaking on background. The group did not normally launch attacks in the area, fearing their own relatives could be hurt.
The Abu Sayyaf has little or no access to the town, keeping its men on the outskirts—Patikul and Indanan.
The officer said Abu Sayyaf attacks had previously been directed at government troops.
"It might be a family feud. We'll be looking into who were there in the cooperative … That's the closest possibility," the officer said.
In Cotabato City, the chief of police of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao said new Abu Sayyaf recruits might be responsible for the Jolo attack.
"There are traces of ASG terror attacks, they are our prime suspects," Chief Supt. Akmad Mamalinta told the Inquirer. But he said the police were not discounting other groups.
ARMM Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan directed the police to fast-track the investigation even as he ordered ARMM Social Welfare Secretary Ruby Sahali to address the immediate needs of the survivors and the relatives of those who died.