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Friday, June 23, 2006

Bomb at market kills 6 in southern Philippines

MANILA, June 23 (Reuters) - A bomb killed six people at a crowded public market in the southern Philippines on Friday in an attack police said was aimed at a powerful provincial governor allied with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

One army officer, Colonel Felipe Tabas, said there were indications the bombing was carried out by Jemaah Islamiah, a regional network of Muslim militants linked to al Qaeda.

But Andal Ampatuan, governor of Maguindanao province on the troubled island of Mindanao, dismissed that idea and said he suspected his attackers came from another group "considered as an enemy of the state", which he did not identify.

A spokesman for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) said the country's largest Muslim rebel group was not responsible. The MILF has maintained a truce since 2003 and is holding regular Malaysian-brokered peace talks with the Philippine government.

"We're cooperating with the government to determine which group was behind the attack," Von al-Haj, head of the MILF ceasefire panel, told Reuters, adding the incident was isolated and would not affect peace talks.

Philippine security forces are also fighting communist rebels and Abu Sayyaf, a small but violent Muslim rebel group with ties to Jemaah Islamiah.

Police and army officials said the explosives, made from four mortar shells, were hidden in a van and detonated as Ampatuan's motorcade was passing the market in Sharif Aguak town.

"There's no other target but the governor," said Lumana Gunting, the police chief of Maguindanao province.

Four of those killed, including a bodyguard, two relatives of the governor and a former town mayor, were in the sixth car of the convoy going to Ampatuan's farm, provincial administrator Norie Unas told reporters.

At least nine people, including two children, were wounded in the blast, police said.


Ampatuan, who has survived several assassination attempts, wields a great deal of political and economic influence.

One of his sons, Zaldy, was elected in August as the governor of a five-province autonomous Muslim region in the south with backing from the national government in Manila. Three other sons are town mayors.

Arroyo's perceived support for Zaldy Ampatuan angered former Muslim rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) who had held the post of governor since signing a peace deal in 1996.

Arroyo weathered an impeachment complaint in Congress last year over allegations of election cheating, many of which centred on parts of Mindanao.

Nearly two decades after the government in Manila created the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, its provinces remain among the poorest in the country.

That poverty, as well as government neglect and corruption, has fuelled a rebellion in the south that has killed more than 120,000 people since the late 1960s and stunted development of an area rich in minerals, rice and other natural resources.
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