Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Authorities in the Philippines are dismissing claims by a Muslim terrorist group that it was responsible for a fire aboard a passenger ferry last week, which may have killed as many as 134 people.
But questions remain, as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) claims that one of the passengers whose name is on a list of those still missing, was a member who had carried out a suicide bombing, starting the blaze.
Coastguard officials have confirmed that Arnulfo Alvardo had been on the passenger manifest, and was still missing.
President Gloria Arroyo rejected the ASG's claims, saying there were "no terrorists" involved in the incident.
The military has also dismissed the notion of ASG involvement, with spokesman Lt.-Col. Daniel Lucero saying the group was merely seeking media attention.
The ferry caught fire last Friday in the central Philippines, and about 700 of the 899 passengers were rescued. Others remain missing, but some were subsequently found to have made their way home - possibly rescued by fishing boats - without reporting in.
The official number of those missing is 134, and the search in the half-sunken wreck is being hampered by poor visibility and other factors. Only one body has been found.
Authorities say they have found no evidence that the fire was caused by a bomb, although witnesses have been quoted reporting an explosion.
Shortly after the incident, the ASG claimed responsibility for an attack on the ferry. Philippine media reported that intelligence reports had in the past named the large ferries plying the archipelago's waters as potential terrorist targets.
The fire broke out on the day two ASG members - one of them the brother of the group's fugitive leader Khaddafy Janjalani - were convicted of kidnapping an American, Jeffrey Schilling, in 2000.
A third appeared in court facing separate charges of abducting 21 hostages.
The ASG is the smallest of several violent groups operating in the southern Philippines, an often lawless area they want for an independent Islamic state.
Despite the claimed goal of a separate state, the group has become better known for kidnapping local and foreign hostages for ransom, as well as for murdering some captives, including Americans.
The claim of ASG responsibility, made as has become customary in a call to a radio station, came from Abu Solaiman, one of four remaining Abu Sayyaf leaders wanted by the U.S. for the kidnapping of three Americans - missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham and tourist Guillermo Sobero.
The three were among a group taken hostage at an island resort in 2000. Sobero was decapitated, and Martin Burnham died a year later during a shootout with Philippine troops. Gracia was rescued.
The U.S. and Philippine armed forces have held joint counter-terrorism operations, focused on the campaign to wipe out the remnants of the ASG, whose leaders remain in hiding and are the subjects of U.S. reward offers.
Researchers say the organization is linked to al-Qaeda, and was established in 1991 as a breakaway from a larger separatist group, with direct funding from Osama bin Laden.
According to Prof. Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based author and expert on al-Qaeda, the ASG has attacked at sea before, in its very early days.
It was believed to have been responsible for the 1991 bombing in Zamboanga City port of the MV Doulos, a merchant ship used by a Christian missionary group as a floating library and ministry facility.
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