DAVAO CITY - President Aquino said the government was looking into the possibility that the al-Qaida-inspired Abu Sayyaf and the little-known Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were behind the bombings, linking for the first time Islamic terrorists and breakaway Moro insurgents to the bombings on the island.
Aquino warned the groups behind a recent spate of bombings in Mindanao that they would "feel the full brunt, depth and might of the State's response."
But Aquino said the security services were looking into growing links among three "threat groups" that he did not identify.
"Previously they were in some sort of a loose alliance, but now they are working together in a desperate bid to halt the peace process in Mindanao," the President said.
The three groups "do not have the capacity to sow widespread terror," he said.
"All they have are aspirational plans-aspirational, because they've been declaring they will launch attacks everywhere. But as to their capability, they still don't have it," he said.
Fourteen people were killed in two explosions in Mindanao on July 26 and Aug. 5, with 76 others wounded in the attacks.
Seven soldiers were wounded in a roadside bomb attack in Shariff Mustapha Saydona town in Maguindanao province on Wednesday.
On Thursday, the military said government troops clashed with Abu Sayyaf bandits in Basilan province, killing seven bandits and disrupting a fresh bombing plot.
One soldier was killed in the clash with about 70 bandits, according to Col. Carlito Galvez, the Army commander in Basilan.
Galvez said the military operation against the Abu Sayyaf was based on information that the group, notorious for terrorist attacks and ransom kidnappings, was manufacturing bombs to be used in attacks in Mindanao at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The three-day religious festivities of Eid'l Fitr, which marks the end of Muslim fasting month, began on Thursday.
"To those willing to partner with us for peace, we welcome you as brothers. But to those who want to challenge the authority of the State, you will feel the full brunt, depth, and might of the State's response," Aquino said in a speech at the 22nd Mindanao Business Conference here.
"You will not get in the way of the peace and the stability that will help fulfil the potentials of Mindanao," Aquino said, referring to Moro groups opposing his administration's preliminary peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The government and the MILF signed the preliminary peace deal in October last year.
The two sides hope to sign a final peace agreement before President Aquino leaves office in 2016.
The final peace accord would establish a new Bangsamoro autonomous region in Mindanao that would share wealth and power with the central government in Manila.
The authorities believe the bombings are related to security operations against the Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF, a splinter of the MILF.
"There is a theory that all of these bombings are related to that, to lessen the pressure of ongoing follow-up operations against these BIFF elements," Aquino told the reporters here on the sidelines of the business conference.
The President did not say outright if the Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF are directly behind the recent bombings.
Expelled from MILF
The police and the military said they would step up security in possible target areas of bombers in Mindanao, but also stopped short of saying the Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF are behind the blasts on the island.
The leader of the BIFF, Ameril Umra Kato, was expelled from the MILF in 2008 for launching attacks in Mindanao after the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a peace deal with the administration of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
The BIFF opposes the MILF's preliminary peace deal with the government, preferring to fight for an independent Islamic state in Mindanao.
Three BIFF fighters were killed in a clash with government forces in Mindanao last week.
The BIFF claimed responsibility for the restaurant blast in Cagayan de Oro City that killed eight people and wounded 46 others on July 26.
BIFF spokesperson Abu Misry Mama said his group would continue attacks against government forces.
But Mama denied that the BIFF had a hand in Monday's car bomb explosion in Cotabato City that left eight people dead and at least 40 others wounded.
City in mourning
The Cotabato City government has declared a monthlong mourning for the victims of the attack.
City Administrator Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, who had said she was the target of the attack, said the flag at city hall would be flown at half-staff as a way of sympathizing with the families of the victims.
Mayor Japal Guiani Jr. earlier said the perpetrators could be "big politicians who paid bombers for hire" to kill him or his sister, Sayadi. He offered an unspecified amount of money as reward for information that would lead to the arrest of the bombers.
President Aquino said there were ongoing operations against the Abu Sayyaf, also linked to the Indonesia-based terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian affiliate of the global terrorist organisation al-Qaida.
He said the authorities had received information that those behind the Cagayan de Oro attack had links with Abu Sayyaf leader Gumbahali Jumdail, alias "Doc Abu," who was killed in in a clash with security forces in February.
But Aquino did not elaborate, and then left, saying he was going to a meeting.
IEDs in Abu assembly
Colonel Galvez said the military operation in Macalang village in Al Barka town, Basilan, on Thursday was carried out to seize improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that the Abu Sayyaf were plotting to use for attacks in the province and in Zamboanga City across the channel.
Galvez said the military had received "A-1 information" about top Abu Sayyaf leaders assembling in Macalang.
He said Abu Sayyaf leaders Nurhassan Jamiri and Puruji Indama and some subleaders were "plotting large-scale terror attacks as soon as the fasting was over."
"We conducted the operation so we can preempt them," Galvez said after the fighting.
A military source said government troops found 30 improvised explosive devices in the place of assembly, the house of the late Abu Sayyaf leader Long Malat.
The source said the bombs were ready and intended for attacks in the cities of Lamitan, Isabela, Zamboanga, Pagadian and some major areas in Zamboanga Sibugay and Zamboanga del Sur provinces.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman, said the military would operate against whoever the Philippine National Police would identify as the perpetrators of the bombings.
Metro Manila safe
Senior Supt. Reuben Theodore Sindac, PNP spokesman, said the police was coordinating with the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (Nica) and the military intelligence units in assessing the security situation.
Sindac said the police was securing prime targets like shopping malls, airports, seaports, piers and transport terminals. Security will be tighter during the long weekend, which starts Friday, Sindac said.
Sindac denied reports and sought to ease fears that Metro Manila was the next target of the terrorists. The metropolis remains on "normal alert," he said.
"As we speak, [the police] have not monitored information or intelligence reports that should worry our people," Sindac said. "However, I would emphasise again that we [continue to assess] the information that comes in," he added.
Festival may be scrapped
But in Davao City, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said he was considering calling off next week's Kadayawan Festival following reports that Davao was a target.
Duterte said he was assessing how far security forces could secure the city against threats, and that he might scrap the festival if he could not be assured of at least 75 per cent safety.