Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Twin bombs struck a Roman Catholic cathedral in the Philippines on Sunday before services, killing at least 27 people and injuring at least 83 others, authorities said.
The bombings occurred in Jolo, which lies in the proposed Bangsamoro Muslim-majority autonomous region, which was overwhelmingly approved last week by voters, the Philippines Star reported.
At around 8:15 a.m., the first explosion hit inside Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel as mass was about to begin. The Jolo Apostolic Vicariate is a Latin Catholic missionary.
Shortly later, an improvised explosive device placed inside the utility box of a motorcycle went off in the cathedral's parking lot. The second blast occurred as soldiers rushed to help victims, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said in a report by CNN.
Most of the victims were attending services along with five soldiers and a member of the Coast Guard.
The explosions blew off the door, pews and glass windows of the cathedral.
President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman Salvador Panelo called the bombinbs an "act of terrorism and murder."
"We will pursue to the ends of the earth the ruthless perpetrators behind this dastardly crime until every killer is brought to justice and put behind bars," he said. "The law will give them no mercy."
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that the Armed Forces heightened its alert level.
"The Armed Forces of the Philippines has immediately secured the explosion area and transported the casualties to the nearest medical facilities, including the air evacuation of some victims to Zamboanga City for further medication and evaluation," Lorenzana said.
People need to "remain calm and avoid spreading panic in our respective communities to deny terrorism any victory," he said.
Last Monday, voters went to the poll on a referendum asking the majority-Muslim population whether they back a plan by separatists and the government to create a new self-administered region.
The majority of the 2.8 million voters supported the referendum, but Jolo residents rejected it. The results were ratified Friday.
Regional Gov. Mujiv Hataman said the bombings are not related to the referendum.
"I can't see the connection. First of all, the Abu Sayyaf or the ISIS [Islamic State] have not manifested their stand on BOL whether they are for or against it," Hataman said.
But he said only Abu Sayyaf has the means to carry out the attack.
Several Islamist insurgent groups, including Abu Sayyaf, have been blamed for attacks on civilians and Philippine government troops, and the kidnapping of several foreign nationals.
On Dec. 31, two people were killed in an explosion outside a busy shopping mall in Cotabato City.
In July, militants linked to Abu Sayyaf struck a military checkpoint with a car bomb, killing at least 10 people.
Jolo is a base of the Abu Sayyaf, which has been blamed for a bombing on a ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 that claimed 116 lives in the country's deadliest terror assault.
The conflict between the government and the rebel group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has claimed 120,000 lives since the 1970s.