Filipino men carry the remains of a body after a bomb exploded in a van in Lamitan, Basilan province. Image Credit: AP

Manila: At least 10 people were killed after a powerful blast destroyed a van about to be inspected by soldiers in Basilan’s Lamitan City early morning on Tuesday.

Reports reaching Manila said militiamen from the Philippine Army-led Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGU) manning a checkpoint in the village of Colonia, were about to inspect a van when the vehicle suddenly exploded.

The reports said an Army Special Forces sergeant serving as a team leader for the unit was asking a “foreign looking” driver of the vehicle what was inside the van when the blast occurred at around 6am, a report by the Bombo Radyo Zamboanga City said.

Among those immediately killed from the blast, aside from the driver, was the sergeant, four CAFGU members and several civilians, including a woman and a 10-year-old who is believed to be a child of one of the dead militiamen.

Critically wounded in the blast are five members of the Army Scout Rangers, including a young lieutenant.

The military detachment is just 200 metres away from the highway.

According to Lamitan City Vice-Mayor Roderick Furigay, the bomber had probably intended to enter the city and detonate the bomb in an area where it would do extensive damage.

Furigay said the driver was being questioned by the militiamen at the checkpoint but was unable to speak the local dialect. This prompted the unit sergeant, to radio his superiors and await clearance to subject the vehicle to an inspection.

However, before the foreign looking man and his cargo can be further inspected, the bomb exploded.

Col. Fernando Reyes, Task Force Basilan commander said they have suspicions that the driver could be a suicide bomber.

Reacting to the report of the blast, the presidential palace said “it condemns in the strongest possible terms the latest terrorist attack in Basilan perpetrated in violation of our laws.”

“Authorities are now investigating the incident even as we vow to bring the perpetrators of this brazen attack to justice,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement.

Senator Riza Hontiveros said the incident occurred at the heels of the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).

“The administration must secure the peace in the region. It must see to it that this incident will not derail our efforts to achieve peace and prosperity in the region, especially with the passage of the BOL,” she said.

Of the many armed groups that operate in Mindanao, none had so far come forward to claim responsibility in the attacks.

The BOL, which was largely made possible through the efforts of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), had somehow left out the group of former Moro National Liberation Front Chairman Emeritus Nur Misuari from the peace process.

Roque said on Monday that President Rodrigo Duterte is also reaching out to Misuari and is even willing to accommodate some of his wishes. The Moro leader was said to be not happy with the BOL.

Misuari, whose fighters are mainly based in Western Mindanao, had long been at odds with the mainly Central Mindanao-based MILF.

“I think the President is reaching out specifically to Nur Misuari and he’s willing to listen to him and accommodate some of his wishes, but as of now I think it’s just really a strong message that if you’re not happy with BOL, come talk to me (Misuari),” Roque said.