Fragments of a 16mm mortar were recovered from the scene

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. condemned a deadly bombing on Sunday, blaming “foreign terrorists” as police and military stepped up security in the south of the country and around the capital Manila.

At least four people were killed and at least 50 injured after a bomb exploded during a morning Catholic mass at a university gym in Marawi, a southern city under siege by Islamist militants for five months in 2017.

“I condemn in the strongest terms the senseless and most heinous acts of foreign terrorists,” Marcos said in a statement. “Extremists who commit violence against innocent people will always be viewed as enemies of our society.”

In Rome, Pope Francis prayed for the victims in his Sunday sermon and, in a separate written message, appealed to “Christ, the Prince of Peace, to give everyone the strength to turn away from violence and to overcome every evil with good.”

Law enforcement efforts to bring perpetrators of “terrorist activity” to justice will “continue unabated,” Defense Minister Gilberto Teodoro said at a news conference.

There were “strong indications of a foreign element” in the bombing, Teodoro said, declining to elaborate so as not to jeopardize the ongoing investigation.

Fragments of a 16mm mortar were recovered from the scene, senior police officer Emmanuel Peralta said at the news conference.

The explosion in Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur province, followed a series of military operations against local pro-Islamic State groups in the southern Philippines, the military chief said, including one on Sunday in Lanao del Sur that resulted in the assassination of a Dawlah leader Islamiya Maute Group.

“It is possible that what happened this morning was a retaliatory attack,” Armed Forces Chief Romeo Brawner said at the news conference.

The Islamic State-linked Maute organization captured Marawi in May 2017 with the aim of turning it into a Southeast Asian “wilayat” – or governorate – for the Islamic State. In the five-month battle that followed, Islamist militants and Filipino forces killed more than a thousand people, including civilians.

Military officials examined the Mindanao State University gym, which appeared to be intact except for burn marks in the center where the explosion occurred, according to images shared on Facebook by the Lanao del Sur government. White plastic chairs were scattered around.

Videos posted by DZBB radio on X showed rescuers carrying injured people out of the gym on plastic chairs.

Police officers in Mindanao and the capital region have been placed on high alert and police checkpoints have been tightened “to prevent possible subsequent incidents,” police officer Peralta said.

The Coast Guard ordered its districts to intensify pre-departure checks at ports.

Mindanao State University is “deeply saddened and horrified by the act of violence during a religious gathering,” the school wrote on Facebook. “We condemn this senseless and terrible act in the strongest possible terms.”

The university announced that it was suspending classes until further notice.

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