Filipino troops defuse bomb

Army troops defused a powerful bomb outside a school today in the same southern Philippine province where the night before a blast destroyed a lodging house and another explosive was found near a hotel in attacks blamed on Abu Sayyaf extremists.

Although it has been crippled by years of US-backed Philippine offensives, the Abu Sayyaf has endured and continued to be blamed for bombings, kidnappings for ransom, extortion and other acts of banditry in at least four impoverished southern provinces. Washington has blacklisted the al-Qa'ida-linked group as a terrorist organization.

An army ordnance team safely defused the bomb, believed to be made from ammonium nitrate and attached to two cellular phones, after patrolling soldiers discovered the explosive in a biscuit can in front of a school compound in Lamitan town in the island province of Basilan, provincial military commander Col. Alex Macario said.

Soldiers cordoned off the area as a soldier, taking cover behind a tree, cut the wires protruding from the explosive with a long bamboo pole fitted with metal hooks, according to witnesses.

The military tightened security in Lamitan after a bomb exploded in a lodging house in the Christian town in predominantly Muslim Basilan late Saturday, destroying the small wood and concrete building but causing no injuries, Macario said.

Two men checked in then left before the blast at the lodging house, often used by transient rubber plantation workers. The owner apparently resisted an extortion attempt by an armed group before the attack, regional police commander Felicisimo Khu Jr. said.

Shortly after the blast, troops found another bomb, which was packed with nails for added lethal power, near a budget hotel in Basilan's capital city of Isabela, officials said.

The army received intelligence that the Abu Sayyaf has planned to bomb a cathedral, small hotels and gas stations in Basilan, about 550 miles (880 kilometers) south of Manila, Macario said.

The Abu Sayyaf is estimated to have 410 fighters in Basilan, where the group was founded in the early 1990s, and in nearby Zamboanga peninsula and the island provinces of Jolo and Tawi Tawi, according to a government threat assessment report.

The militants have been grappling with the loss of several top leaders and factionalism, but remain a key security threat. They staged at least 11 kidnappings last year, enabling them to raise $704,000 in ransom, the report said.