COTABATO, Philippines — A grenade blast outside the Catholic cathedral in the southern Philippine city of Cotabato Dec. 22 wounded at least 12 people, including eight soldiers on patrol. reported that another explosion hurt at least six people in the nearby town of Libungan, while two other people were wounded in another blast in Upi town.

No groups have yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, which happened ahead of Christmas in the predominantly Christian country. A military official said he believed the blasts were aimed at soldiers.

The attack outside Immaculate Concepcion Cathedral took place at around 6 p.m. local time while Mass was being held, resulting in panic, said Father Zaldy Robles, a local priest.

“The Mass-goers rushed out of the church,” said the priest. A later Mass was cancelled due to security concerns.

The grenade was thrown at the gate of a radio station run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate congregation beside the cathedral, the seat of Cotabato Archdiocese.

The military blamed the extremist group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters for the attack.

The blasts in Cotabato occurred as authorities were preparing for the lifting of martial law in the region by end of the month.

“It was a grenade attack. The target was our troops,” said Maj. Arvin Encinas, spokesman for the military’s Western Mindanao Command.

He said the cathedral grenade exploded while soldiers in a military truck were passing by.

“We could not discount (the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters’) involvement. They are the only group we are confronting,” said Encinas.

In December 2018, two people were killed and 35 wounded in Cotabato after a bomb went off outside a shopping mall.

That incident was blamed on fighters linked to Islamic State, which has reportedly stepped up a strategy of absorbing existing insurgent groups around the world.

In May 2017, gunmen who pledged allegiance to Islamic State seized the city of Marawi, also in Mindanao, sparking a five-month siege that left more than 1,000 people dead.

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