SAMAR – The military has retrieved a total of six bodies from the Samar Sea, near the site of the August 22 encounter with suspected communist rebels, Joint Task Force (JTF) Storm chief Major General Edgardo de Leon said on Saturday, August 27.
De Leon told Rappler in an interview that the remains belonged to three males, two females, and one suspected rebel of still undetermined gender.
The general said the last three retrievals happened on Thursday, August 26, off Sto Niño, an island municipality 24 kilometers (km) southwest of Calbayog City and almost 45 km northwest of the provincial capital, Catbalogan.
Strong currents in the area had carried these bodies farther than the earlier recovery sites of Libucan Daku and Libucan Guti islands just off Tarangan town, 16.9 km north of Catbalocan.
The first recoveries were around the site of the August 22 dawn encounter. Locals had earlier tipped authorities about alleged communist rebels loading boxes of suspected explosives and weapons on a 10-seater boat.
Three bodies retrieved in Tarangnan earlier were blessed by a priest before being buried at the Tarangnan Municipal Cemetery at around 3 pm on Friday.
As the search in the Samar Sea continued, troops pursued four New People’s Army (NPA) platoons in the area bordering four towns: Matuginao and San Jose de Buan in Samar, Las Navas in Northern Samar, and Maslog in Eastern Samar.
De Leon said these NPA units have been identified as the protectors of rebel “VIPs” who were trying to flee on August 22.
“Dahil sa na-corner namin itong mga areas na ‘to, kaya tumakas sila,” De Leon told Rappler. (We had cornered these areas so they were trying to escape.)
He said the military would continue pursuit operations although they “have strong reason to believe the rebel VIPs were in the banca that exploded.”
While the general did not identify the alleged ranking communist leaders, he earlier referenced social media claims from an anonymous Facebook page that largely posts defense-related news. On August 22, the page claimed that top Communist Party of the Philippines leaders Benito and Wilma Tiamzon were in the boat that exploded.
The Tiamzons were arrested in 2014 in Cebu City, allowed to post bail for the 2016 peace talks between the National Democratic Front (NDF) and then-president Rodrigo Duterte’s government, but went back underground in late 2017 when Duterte ended peace talks.
A Quezon City regional trial court convicted the couple of kidnapping and serious illegal detention in in November 2020.
Clear identification of the recovered bodied will take time, police authorities said, because they need to match DNA of the remains with those of close relatives.
Nobody has come to claim the remains of the boat occupants. There has also been no response from rebel spokespersons on the supposed presence of the Tiamzon couple during the August 22 encounter.
De Leon on Friday, August 26, took a reconnaissance flight over the picturesque blue waters and tree-covered islands that he had earlier described as hosts to various criminal groups and communist rebels.
It’s not easy to find cadavers because strong currents bring them to different areas, said the general.
The recovered remains, he added, were in “advanced stage of decomposition,” prompting immediate burial for health and sanitation reasons.
Most of the bodies found had upper portions ruptured or torn to pieces, according to JTF Storm spokesperson Captain Ryan Layug.
Layug told Rappler that the most common boat configuration in the area is having the luggage area near the chest level of passengers.
“So the main possibility is, if explosive components of their cargo detonated, it would be the upper bodies taking the strongest force as the common blast trajectory is upwards,” he said in a mix of Filipino and English.
De Leon said JTF Storm tried to interdict the boat because of reports that its occupants were carrying explosives.
“Yung explosives na ‘yun meron ‘yun components na meron blasting caps, may mga black powder, ‘yung ginagamit nila paggawa sa landmine. Mas delikado ‘yun kesa sa buo na landmine,” the general told Rappler. (Those explosives include components like blasting caps and black powder, what they use in making landmines, and these are more dangerous than a landmine itself.)
“Our theory is there was ‘sympathetic detonation’ for which there may be many possible factors. They also carried M203s, with rifle grenades and during the course of the exchange of fire, the explosive components could have been hit,” De Leon said in a mix of Filipino and English.
Navy Seals and Special Forces personnel involved in the operation said the gun battle raged from between 15 to 20 minutes, De Leon added.
It will be hard to determine the exact cause of the explosion, he said, because the boat parts had been in salt water for days. – Rappler.com