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Christmas-eve killer blast in Philippines

Cotabato (Philippines), Dec 24 (Reuters): A bomb blamed on Muslim militants killed a town mayor and 12 others in the southern Philippines today but the government played down the chances of a nationwide wave of Christmas-eve blasts.

As the Roman Catholic nation of 80 million people embraces Christmas with festive fervour, security forces are on high alert for attacks on crowded churches and malls by Muslim radicals suspected of links to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network.

Bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali which killed at least 180 people in October also prompted the police and military across Asia to raise their guard against Muslim fundamentalism during one of the most important Christian celebrations.

“We believe the bomb was planted by followers of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front,” army spokesman Major Julieto Ando said from Maguindanao province on the island of Mindanao, 800 km south of capital Manila.

“The MILF apparently resents the mayor’s efforts to build new roads in Datu Piang because they are afraid the military might use the roads to transport soldiers and equipment quickly.”

The MILF, the biggest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines, denied it was responsible.

Saudie Ampatuan, the Muslim mayor of Datu Piang, was walking home after attending mourning prayers for a dead relative when an improvised 81-mm mortar bomb was detonated by remote control.

The 12 others killed were the treasurer of the town of 60,000 people, three other local officials, a retired army sergeant and several civilians. Twelve people were wounded.

“Bodies were scattered in the street,” said one resident. “There was stampede in the neighbourhood. Others simply picked up the fallen bodies and loaded them into cars.”

Mindanao is a politically volatile region that has been wracked by secessionist conflicts since 1972.

Abu Sayyaf guerrillas linked to al Qaida also operate in parts of Mindanao and on nearby islands, specialising in kidnap for ransom. Dozens of foreigners have been among their victims.

National security adviser Roilo Golez said the attack could have stemmed from a political grudge as the mayor and his brother, who was shot dead at a night club on Sunday, were sons of the governor of Maguindanao province.

“It looks like politics but it’s still being investigated,” Golez said, adding that security measures after the bombing would not change from “the usual heightened alert”.

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