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Philippines Seeks Four Suspects in Ferry Blast

Times Staff Writer

Philippine authorities said Monday that they were seeking four members of Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic gang with long-standing ties to Al Qaeda, in the February sinking of a ferry that left at least 118 people dead.

The announcement by Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that the group planted a bomb in a television set placed on the ferry officially made the sinking the region’s deadliest terrorist attack since the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings.

Arroyo, who earlier indicated that the cause of the sinking was unclear, said charges had been filed against six suspects in the attack, including one who also allegedly beheaded hostage Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif., in 2001. Arroyo named fugitive Abu Sayyaf leaders Khadafi Abubakar Janjalani and Abu Solaiman as among the six suspects and said two of the suspects were already under arrest.

“We have solved the Superferry bombing,” Arroyo said at a news conference where police displayed the two detainees, who were arrested in March and allegedly confessed to their involvement in the ferry bombing soon after.

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Abu Sayyaf is one of three extremist Muslim groups with ties to Al Qaeda operating in the southern Philippines, an impoverished and rebellious region where most of the country’s Muslims live.

The largest is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has thousands of fighters and is seeking independence for the southern Philippines. The government and the rebels are in the early stages of negotiating a peace agreement.

Perhaps the most deadly is Jemaah Islamiah, the Southeast Asian network that has carried out numerous bombings in the Philippines and Indonesia, including the Bali bombings that killed 202 people. It has trained many of its operatives at camps in the southern Philippines in territory controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The reason for the timing of Monday’s announcement was unclear since the two suspects in custody were arrested months ago.

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Arroyo, who took over as president three years ago, was elected to her first full six-year term in May. She disappointed the Bush administration by pulling the Philippines’ small contingent of troops from Iraq in July and may be attempting to demonstrate her desire to cooperate with Washington in its war against terrorism. Arroyo on Monday called on the Philippine Congress to pass tougher anti-terrorism legislation.

“The arrest of the two suspects illustrates the fact that in the first 100 days of this administration, we have been able to stabilize our security situation,” Arroyo said. “We set the stage for the systematic and comprehensive solution to the problem of poverty in our country within the next six years.”

The ferry, which was carrying about 900 passengers, went down an hour out of Manila on its way to the central and southern Philippines. Authorities believe that at least 118 people died, but many bodies were not recovered and the death toll might have been higher.

Abu Sayyaf is best known for staging dramatic kidnappings, killing some of its hostages and collecting large sums for others.

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Soon after the sinking, Janjalani and Solaiman publicly claimed responsibility and said the disaster was caused by a bomb detonated by a timer. Janjalani said the group had sent three letters to the operator of the ferry months before the bombing demanding payment of “taxes” for use of the seas. The company confirmed that it had received the letters.

Officials initially played down the group’s claims but subsequently said the bombing might have been part of an attempt by the group to branch out and extort money from the shipping company.

Examination of the wreck and statements extracted from captured Abu Sayyaf members indicate that an explosion was triggered by 8 pounds of TNT planted inside a television carried aboard the vessel shortly before it sailed.

The captain of the ferry told investigators that he smelled gunpowder after the blast. Other witnesses said the explosion occurred in the same area of the vessel where Abu Sayyaf claimed to have planted a bomb.

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Authorities have long sought Solaiman and Janjalani, whose brother Abdurajak founded Abu Sayyaf and was later gunned down by police. The United States has offered a $5-million reward for each of them.

“Their two triggermen are now in custody, including the one who beheaded American hostage Guillermo Sobero, and their cache of TNT explosives had been seized, which prevents similar bombings from being perpetrated,” Arroyo said. “I am now instructing the police and the military to intensify the manhunt for the two masterminds, Khadafi Janjalani and Abu Solaiman, and their two other accomplices.”


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