MANILA: A grenade attack on a mosque in the troubled southern Philippines killed two people early yesterday, authorities said, just days after a deadly Catholic cathedral bombing and a vote backing Muslim self-rule in the region. The latest blast prompted worries of sectarian retaliation in the majority Catholic Philippines, with authorities urging inter-faith unity as investigators hunted a motive.

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines: People look inside a mosque on the southern island of Mindanao yesterday after a grenade attack. – AFP

The grenade explosion tore through the mosque as the victims were sleeping before dawn in Zamboanga on the insurgency-plagued island of Mindanao, which is home to the Philippines’ Muslim minority. Four people were wounded in the attack. Just three days earlier, a bombing at a cathedral on the neighboring island of Jolo claimed 21 lives at Sunday mass in an assault claimed by the Islamic State group.

HH the Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah yesterday sent a cable of condolences to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte over the victims of the grenade attack. In the cable, the Amir voiced sharp condemnation of this terrorist and cowardly act that targeted innocents and disrupted the country’s security and stability. He reiterated Kuwait’s principled stand that decries all manifestations and forms of terrorism, and stands side by side with the Philippines in all security measures it is taking to fight such criminal acts. HH the Amir also wished mercy to the deceased and swift recovery to the injured. Similar cables were sent by HH the Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and HH the Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah to the Philippine president.

Authorities warned against speculating the mosque attack was an act of revenge, adding they had no indication it was retaliation for the cathedral bombing. “We’re still looking at it, but we have not found any connection,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters. “In the past when churches were bombed … there were no revenge attacks.” Authorities have not publicly identified any suspects and no one has claimed responsibility for the mosque attack.

“Regardless of one’s faith (we) must resist becoming a victim of this vicious cycle of violence these terrorists are now attempting to create,” Zia Alonto Adiong, a politician in the southern Philippines, wrote on Twitter. “Let us not fall into their trap and give them the satisfaction of turning ourselves (Muslims & Christians) into enemies.”

Authorities are also hunting for those behind the cathedral assault, which security forces initially said was not a suicide bombing. On Tuesday, however, Duterte contradicted them, saying one of the bombers had blown himself up outside the cathedral. If confirmed, it would be only the second known suicide attack in the Philippines after a van bombing in July that killed 11 and was also claimed by Islamic State.

Lorenzana appeared to walk back on the president’s comments yesterday, saying: “The final conclusion is not there yet. It’s still being investigated.” The probe was zeroing in a group tied to the notorious Islamist kidnap-for-ransom group Abu Sayyaf, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Police said they tried to arrest one of the suspects on Tuesday, but he got away and an armed man was shot dead by officers in the process.

The attacks have cast a shadow over hopes that a vote to give Muslims in the south more control over their own affairs would help quell long-running separatist violence. Rebels and the government in Manila have expressed hope the new so-called Bangsamoro area will finally attract the investment needed to pull the region out of the brutal poverty that makes it a hotspot for recruiting radicals.

However, hardline factions aligned with IS were not part of the decades-long peace process with the nation’s largest separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, that culminated Jan 21 with the resounding approval of a new Muslim led-region in the south. Jolo, which is home to hardline Islamist factions, is the only area in the southern Philippines that voted against the Bangsamoro.

The grenade attack yesterday drew immediate condemnation from authorities. “There is no redeeming such blasphemous murder. It is the highest form of cowardice and obscenity to attack people who (are) at prayer,” said regional leader Mujiv Hataman. “We call on people of all faiths … to come together to pray for peace.” – Agencies