A bomb hidden in a motorcycle taxi exploded at a checkpoint in the volatile southern Philippines, killing its driver and heightening a security alarm amid fears of Muslim rebel attacks, officials said Wednesday.
The homemade bomb, concealed inside a sack of charcoal, went off at a checkpoint in Sultan Kudarat province's Esperanza township late Tuesday as the vehicle was being inspected by a policeman, provincial police chief Superintendent Benhur Monggao said. The policeman also was wounded, he said.
Army officials speculated that the motorcycle taxi driver may have been a would-be bomber who was killed when his bomb exploded prematurely. But Monggao said investigators were still checking the background of the driver, a 17-year-old Christian villager, and could not reach any immediate conclusion.
He said it was possible the bomb was placed in the vehicle without the driver's knowledge.
Government troops and police forces have been placed on alert in the country's south due to recent bomb attacks and a military offensive against three Muslim guerrilla commanders who went on a bloody rampage in August, killing dozens in predominantly Christian communities.
The motorcycle taxi, which was destroyed by the blast, came from nearby Maguindanao province, where the main stronghold of the 11,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front is located.
Army Col. Marlou Salazar, who is helping oversee offensives against the rebels, said they were likely responsible for the bomb explosion.
He said the rebels have planned bombings and other attacks to disrupt the Christmas and New Year holidays and divert the military's focus from counterinsurgency assaults.
The rebels most likely also planted a bomb that exploded last week near Esperanza on a road where military convoys often pass, Salazar said. Nobody was wounded in that attack, he said.
Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu denied Salazar's claims, saying his group has long condemned terrorist acts.
The government suspended talks with the rebels in August after the three guerrilla commanders attacked the Christian communities.
The rebels said the commanders were frustrated after the Supreme Court scrapped a preliminary accord on an expanded Muslim autonomous region, which Christian politicians opposed.
The government has reconstituted its negotiating panel and said it wants to resume talks with the rebels, who have been fighting for Muslim self-rule in the south for decades.