Lawmaker Was Target of Manila Bomb Attack: Probers
by Manuel L. Quezon III
MANILA/ZAMBOANGA CITY, 15 November 2007 — Basilan Rep. Wahab Akbar was the target of Tuesday night’s bomb attack that killed him and three others outside the Philippine House of Representatives, police said yesterday.
Wahab Akbar, one of the most influential figures in the country’s restive southern Philippines, died in hospital in Manila on Tuesday night from injuries sustained in the blast. A driver and a congressional aide were also killed and an aide to Akbar died of his injuries yesterday.
“We now have evidence of a bomb … the cell phone and pieces of nails used as shrapnel,” metropolitan Manila police chief Geary Barias said yesterday.
“They could see their target,” he said. “Those circumstances would show the target was Congressman Akbar.”
Akbar died at the Far Eastern University hospital where doctors tried to save his life — his skull was fractured from the blast that his supporters and families believed was an assassination.
Barias said cell phone text messages, purportedly from the Abu Sayyaf, were circulating that claimed responsibility for the bombing but added: “We are not taking that hook, line and sinker.”
Akbar also had known political enemies in Basilan, where politicians maintain private armies and often engage authorities — and each other — in armed attacks.
“It was an assassination,” his spokesman Chris Puno told reporters without elaborating.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said the entire House security staff had been suspended and replaced by special police commandos.
Nine people were injured in the blast, which hit the south lobby of the sprawling Congress complex in Manila’s suburb of Quezon City on Tuesday night, just minutes after most representatives had left for the evening.
It was the first time that the Philippine Congress had been targeted by such an attack, and lawmakers said yesterday they wanted to get the House back to work as soon as possible.
“We want to show that everything is normal,” House Speaker Jose de Venecia said.
“We don’t want to show we are scared of the terrorists or assassins who did this criminal and dastardly act,” said de Venecia, who later oversaw the reopening of the House with a minute of silence for the deceased Akbar.
In the Senate, Akbar’s partymates in the Liberal Party — Manuel Roxas II, Rodolfo Biazon, Francis Pangilinan, and Benigno Aquino III — closed ranks and filed a resolution condemning the bombing.
In Senate Resolution 205, the four senators said the bombing “strikes at the core of Philippine democracy” since the representatives are elected by the people.
The LP senators also called on the government to review security measures at all vital installations such as oil depots, airports, and similar facilities.
They also asked the police to conduct a “swift and thorough investigation” into the incident, saying an immediate solution to the case would restore peace and order in the country.
In the Basilan capital of Isabela hundreds of people lined the streets, many openly weeping, as Akbar’s body was carried by a pickup truck to its place of burial.
“We have lost a great leader — a leader who united Muslims and Christians, a leader who crushed the Abu Sayyaf. Now we are apprehensive the Abu Sayyaf will come back,” said spokesman Puno.
“We love him so much. He was such a good man and he helped many poor people here. There is nobody who can take his place,” added Nasser Amdam, 43.
Akbar, who was 47, was known to be a former member of the Abu Sayyaf who later turned against the group and helped the government in its anti-terrorism campaign against the militants on the southern island of Basilan.
Police and military officials have noted that Akbar had spoken in the past of his links with Abubakar Janjalani, an Afghan-trained Islamic firebrand who founded the Abu Sayyaf initially to fight for an independent state in the Philippine south.
After Janjalani was killed in a gunbattle with police in 1998, Akbar severed ties with the group and later joined the mainstream to seek elective office.
He twice served as governor of Basilan, a jungle-covered southern island used by the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf as a base to launch kidnappings and bombing raids.
Not Abu Sayyaf
His spokesman said Akbar was once a commander of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which signed a peace agreement with Manila, but never a member of the extremist group Abu Sayyaf.
“There was no truth to all those things. Wahab Akbar was never an Abu Sayyaf, not even its founder. Those were all lies. Wahab Akbar destroyed the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan,” Puno said.
Akbar was known to have joined the MNLF at the age of 14 in 1974. His father, Mutammad Salajin, was also a rebel commander. In 1994, Akbar went to Syria where he studied Islamic theology and jurisprudence and stayed in the Middle East for about six years.
He returned to Basilan island in 1997 where he preached Islam and was eventually persuaded by his students to run for governor on the island. Akbar won in the elections in 1998 and had served for nine years.
Akbar supported then Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo after President Joseph Estrada was deposed in 2001 after a bloodless coup. He was also credited for Arroyo’s landslide victory in Basilan in 2004 and so were senators under her.
He also helped a former town mayor Zaldy Ampatuan win in autonomous regional elections in Basilan.
During the hostage crisis in Basilan in 2002, Akbar’s army was said to have seized Janjalani’s son and several relatives to force the Abu Sayyaf into freeing their captives. He was also instrumental in the release of two Belgian citizens — a journalist and an agrarian expert — who were kidnapped in Zamboanga City and brought to Basilan in the 1990s.
During his stint as governor, Akbar had aggressively pursued agrarian reform in Basilan and the putting up of farmers’ and fishermen’s cooperatives in different towns and provided thousands of villagers with sustainable livelihood, Puno said.
“Now that he is dead, the Abu Sayyaf may be back soon in Basilan. We are now like a house with all doors and windows open and waiting for wolves to attack us,” he said.
Akbar’s wives did not give any statement, but Puno said they all wanted a thorough investigation into the blast.
He has four wives: Jum Akbar, now governor of Basilan island and Cherry Lyn, the mayor of Isabela and Marieta Zamoranos and Nur-in. Akbar had 7 children from three if wives. Others say he had as many as 13 wives.