MANILA, Philippines – The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the communist New People's Army (NPA) confirmed they exchanged gunfire in Makilala, North Cotabato over the weekend while their negotiators were talking peace in Rome.
A communist rebel was killed in an hour-long exchange of gunfire with the military at Sitio Lokatong in Barangay Biangan on Saturday afternoon, January 21, in the first armed encounter to disrupt the 5-month-old indefinite ceasefires separately declared in August 2016. (READ: Gov't in backchannel talks to protect ceasefire)
Another 30-minute firefight erupted on Sunday morning, January 22, when the troops returned to clear the area. Troops recovered the body of a rebel they identified as Rojit Estampa Ranara, 33, of the Guerrilla Front 51 of the NPA Southern Mindanao Regional Committee. He was reportedly a resident of nearby province Davao del Sur.
In a statement, the NPA claimed they killed 8 soldiers in the encounter. The military denied this.
The military's Eastern Mindanao Command chief, Lieutenant General Rey Leonardo Guerrero, told Rappler on Sunday it was a legitimate operation in support of the local police.
"It was a law enforcement operation by the Makilala police against an armed group of extortionists. The 39th Infantry Battalion (IB) provided supporting elements to the PNP," Guerrero said.
The NPA Regional Operations Command in southern Mindanao accused the military of violating its own ceasefire, hunting them down even as the rebels supposedly tried to evade the troops that arrived in Makilala as early as 5 a.m. on Saturday.
"The Duterte government must know by now that it is the bullish insincerity of its armed forces to continue its counter-insurgency campaign that is the biggest impediment in the quest for just and lasting peace," the NPA said in a statement.
While in Rome
It was early Saturday morning in Rome when the clashes happened.
The peace panels of the government and the communist-led National Democratic Front were signing supplemental guidelines that were meant to empower the languishing Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC), the body tasked to monitor and investigate allegations of human rights abuses by state forces and communist rebels.
The government panel seeks to elevate the unilateral ceasefire declarations to a bilateral ceasefire deal that will put in place common rules for the military and the NPA in order to avoid misencounters.
The peace panels have not issued statements on the encounter.
Extortion or sabotage?
Photo from the military
Makilala has always been a hotspot of conflict between the military and the communist rebels.
Both camps have accused each other of abusing the ceasefire, with the military supposedly occupying communities and conducting intelligence operations against suspected rebels and the NPA supposedly extorting from local businessmen.
Captain Rhyan Bathar, spokesperson of the 10th Infantry Division based in nearby Compostela Valley, said the troops were pursuing a group of armed men that was reported by the police to be extorting from a construction company when they were fired upon Saturday afternoon.
Bathar said the local police sought military assistance when Santos Land Development Corporation (SLDC) reported that its company driver was being threatened by 4 armed men in Makilala.
"The driver of the 10-wheeler truck reported that the armed men fired at him and threatened that the management will suffer the consequences if they fail to give in to their extortion demands. After which, the armed men forcibly took the key of the said truck and escaped immediately," said Bathar.
The military claimed to have recovered several extortion letters at the abandoned encounter site.
Photo from the military
The NPA said the military did not stop its counter-insurgency campaign despite the peace talks, deploying peace and development outreach program (PDOP) teams in barangay halls, health centers, and schools and conducting intelligence gathering and psywar in far-flung areas.
"Sitio Lokatong in Barangay Biangan is a remote area that their presence can only mean an offensive operation against the NPA. They fool no one by claiming that their combat operation was merely in response to reports by local authorities of the presence of lawless groups: for the entire day, they actively maneuvered to engage the evading unit of the NPA," the NPA statement said.
"For more than 3 months, the ceasefire only existed because the NPA was consciously maneuvering its forces in order to avoid armed skirmish in the face of unrelenting combat operations of AFP and PNP troops," the NPA statement said.
The local chapter of rights group Karapatan fears the clash was meant to sabotage the peace talks.
"Para sa amin sa Karapatan, isa itong sabotahe sa (Karapatan fears that this happened to sabotage) ongoing peace talks between GRP and NDF. Mayroong mga grupo kahit diyan sa government at AFP na ayaw nila ng ceasefire (There are groups in the government and the AFP that do not want a ceasefire)," Karapatan-North Cotabato officer Joy Mirasol told Rappler in a phone interview.
Mirasol said Karapatan is documenting the incident and will submit its report to the peace panels. – Rappler.com