CEBU, Philippines – A motorboat exploded off the coast of Catbalogan, Samar, during a firefight between the Philippine military and an unidentified group of people at around 4 am on Monday, August 22.
“When our troops approached them, we tried to negotiate to conduct a plain view inspection. But they were shot at while talking, good thing they weren’t hit. And that’s when the chase and firefight started. And then their motorized boat just exploded,” Major General Edgardo de Leon, commander of the 8th Infantry Division, said in a mix of English and Filipino in an interview with Rappler.
De Leon, however, could not confirm an earlier report attributed to the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Joint Task Force Storm that those on board the boat were alleged New People’s Army fighters and included spouses Benito and Wilma Tiamzon, top leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
No bodies found
De Leon said their troops went after the motorized boat after they received reports it was seen leaving, boarding boxes from mainland Samar before heading toward the island of Canhawan Guti, located off the coast of Catbalogan City proper.
“For now, we are still investigating who we had an encounter with. No bodies have been found, only debris from the motorboat that exploded,” he said.
The Tiamzons were convicted and sentenced for kidnapping and serious illegal detention by a Quezon City court in November 2020, but have not been seen since they were ordered rearrested by a Manila court in 2018. (READ: Court convicts Tiamzon couple for kidnapping, serious illegal detention)
They were released in 2016 after spending two years in prison to participate as National Democratic Front of the Philippines consultants in the failed 2016 Oslo peace talks.
Explosives on board, military unsure if suspects are NPA
De Leon suspected that the explosion was because the boat was carrying explosives.
“Our suspicion is they had explosives on board because a tipster came up on the boat, and there were boxes [of explosives] that we suspect they were going to transport,” he added.
It’s unclear, he said, if the explosion was caused by the firefight or if the suspects set them off.
The Army commander also could not yet confirm if the suspects were members of the communist New People’s Army, although he said they had been monitoring armed communist activities for several months before the encounter.
The CPP has yet to issue a statement on the encounter. – with reports from Jazmin Bonifacio and Jairo Bolledo/Rappler.com