ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AFP) -At least 30 people, including several children, were wounded in a ferry bomb blast in an area of the southern Philippines plagued by Muslim insurgents, officials said.
The explosion went off while passengers were boarding the Dona Ramona ferry at the Basilan island port of Lamitan, which was built with American aid money and formally opened by US officials only days ago.
The crudely-made bomb was hidden among liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) tanks, and the explosion ripped through the back section of the ferry as it was about to leave for Zamboanga, across the Basilan strait, the military said.
"This was a concealed explosive device that was left on piles of LPG tanks," said Basilan military chief Brigadier General Raymundo Ferrer. "This was purely to sow terror."
Those wounded, mainly suffering burns and cuts, included women and children as well as two soldiers guarding the area, the military said.
Ferrer would not say whether the Abu Sayyaf Islamic militant group was suspected behind the attack, although other security officials said the blast bore the hallmark of the Al-Qaeda-linked group.
Nick Castro, an aide to Lamitan”s mayor, said the explosion appeared to have been caused by a home-made bomb.
The area was "in chaos" and a thick smell of gunpowder hung in the air, said provincial spokesman Cris Puno.
"There were children among those wounded," he said.
The blast at Lamitan port — built using US aid money and opened by the American charge d”affaires Daryl Johnson just days ago — came after the Abu Sayyaf wounded 26 people in a bomb attack on August 10 in Zamboanga.
Security forces have been on heightened alert for more bombings after three Abu Sayyaf suspects in the Zamboanga blast were freed on bail.
The Abu Sayyaf, which security experts say once enjoyed support from Osama bin Laden”s Al-Qaeda network, is also known to operate in Lamitan, a mixed Muslim-Christian town.
Founded in the early 1990s it has degenerated into a criminal gang over the years, specializing in kidnap for ransom and bomb attacks.
National police chief Arturo Lomibao was to fly to Basilan later in the day to personally lead the investigation, said police spokesman Chief Superintendent Leopoldo Bataoil in Manila.
Police bomb experts were gathering clues from the blast site, Bataoil said on DZBB radio, adding that "we are looking at all angles".
However, he stressed that authorities had been on heightened alert since the Zamboanga bombings, and that officials had received "advisories that there will be possibilities of of terrorist incidents."
"We are not discounting the possibility that the Abu Sayyaf group is the one behind this," Bataoil said.
In 2000, the group seized dozens of mostly European hostages in a daring cross-border raid on a Malaysian diving resort. They were subsequently ransomed off for millions of dollars.
The following year, they seized three Americans and several Filipinos from a resort in the western Philippine island of Palawan. All the Filipinos were freed, but two of the Americans were killed — one of them beheaded.
The Abu Sayyaf was also blamed for firebombing a passenger ferry off Manila last year, killing more than 100 people in the Philippines” worst terrorist attack.
The group is on the US State Department”s list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Security experts say the Abu Sayyaf has established links with the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), blamed for the October 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people.