Four people were killed and 34 wounded in a bomb attack outside a Catholic church in the strife-torn southern Philippines, police and military said.
The bomb exploded in a small restaurant nearby as churchgoers were filing out of the Immaculate Conception cathedral in Cotabato city after an early morning mass, police said.
Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attack, but regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Ponce was quick to blame separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels for the blast.
Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu denied his group was involved and condemned the bombing. He said the rebels would not do anything to foment a religious war.
The MILF said previously that they have killed more than 500 government troops in 10 months of fighting since the collapse of peace talks. The MILF also claims that government forces deliberately burning 2,000 houses, killing villagers suspecting of supporting the guerrillas, bombing a mosque and blocking food for displaced residents.
The military dismisses their claims as mere propaganda.
Both sides have largely respected a 2003 truce, but clashes have resumed since the Philippine Supreme Court last August scrapped a preliminary peace deal that would have expanded an autonomous Muslim region on the main southern island of Mindanao.
Chief rebel negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said unrelenting military air and ground attacks have caused widespread destruction and suffering in predominantly Muslim communities, prompting his group to allow commanders to strike back at troops.
"We have tried to observe the cease-fire," Iqbal said. "But when they began to hit us, we have to hit back."
Iqbal also urged the Philippine government to halt an offensive in the southern Mindanao region and revive peace talks.
“We know the Philippine government cannot defeat us militarily and we can't defeat the army, so let us stop the killing and burning of houses," said Iqbal, who returned from a visit to London and Belfast last week following the British government's invitation to study the Northern Ireland peace deal.
Both sides have also urged for a stronger presence from the international community.
"We also want the international community to play a more active role in the talks and make sure Manila will not back out from its commitment," said Iqbal, while early last month, Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said the government wants a "true" ceasefire with Muslim rebels properly monitored by an international peacekeeping team.
Fighting has escalated in the oil and gas-rich marshlands in Mindanao in the last two months, forcing nearly 350,000 people to flee from their homes and farms and pushing back peace talks stalled since August 2008
AFP, Four dead, 34 wounded in Philippine church bombing, 5 July 2009, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5i5GbeV92-h37MxhMuaPwt...
AP, Filipino rebels claim killing hundreds of troops, July 2 2009, http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5j_MyE1LBQaFm9vBtAphxTC...
Reuters, INTERVIEW-Philippine Muslim rebels urge truce, peace talks, July 1 2009, http://www.reuters.com/article/featuredCrisis/idUSMAN486967