MANILA, Philippines – A bomb exploded Monday in a grocery store on a southern Philippine island considered an Al Qaeda stronghold, killing at least five people and wounding at least a dozen more, authorities said.
One man was arrested, and police suspected the blast was the work of Abu Sayyaf, a notorious Islamic militant group on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
The explosion occurred at midday on southern Jolo island, where American troops recently conducted joint counterterrorism exercises with Filipino forces. Dozens of U.S. soldiers — including ordnance experts and medical personnel — responded to the scene of the bombing and helped transport the wounded to hospitals.
The bomb was believed hidden in a bag left at a ground-floor baggage counter of the two-story cooperative building in downtown Jolo on Jolo island, about 590 miles southeast of Manila, said provincial police Senior Superintendent Ahirun Ajirim.
The store had just reopened after a lunch break and was not crowded at the time of the blast, chief provincial social worker Maydelyn Bahjin said. Hospitals recorded at least five people killed and 19 wounded, Bahjin said.
But provincial government spokesman Sabri Asri said nine people were killed and more than a dozen were wounded.
It was not immediately possible to reconcile the figures.
Suspicion for the blast immediately fell on Abu Sayyaf.
"No one else would do something like this except them, but of course we first have to go deeper and come up with conclusive findings," said Senior Superintendent Akmad Mamalinta, police chief of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
He said one man was arrested while carrying a .35-caliber gun and a two-way radio "believed ... used in the bombing." He identified the man as a Filipino Muslim.
Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, hiding in the remote jungles of the southern Philippines, have targeted Filipinos and Americans in ransom kidnappings and bomb attacks. The Al Qaeda-linked group numbers about 300 men, and Washington has offered rewards for information leading to the capture of its leaders.
In February, when the joint U.S.-Filipino exercises began, a bombing at a karaoke bar killed one person and wounded 28 near Jolo's army headquarters. The incident was blamed on the Abu Sayyaf.
Scores of militants already have been killed or arrested in U.S.-backed military operations. Last month, about 250 American troops participated in training of Filipino soldiers on Jolo, focusing on humanitarian and medical projects.