“We will come after you,” Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas on Monday warned the gunmen who killed nine people, including a policeman, and wounded 12 others, mostly civilians, in an ambush at La Castellana town in Negros Occidental province early on Sunday.
The police and the military believe the gunmen were communist New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas.
But Negros Occidental Gov. Alfredo Marañon Jr. doubted the ambushers were communist rebels because civilians were not spared in the attack.
Marañon said the gunmen could be people “high on drugs.”
Speaking at the 22nd anniversary celebration of the Philippine National Police at Camp Crame, Roxas said the victims were just coming from a village fiesta early on Sunday when they were “mercilessly, brutally, ruthlessly attacked.”
Appalled by the incident, Roxas vowed to deliver justice to the families of the victims.
“I say this to all the lawless elements out there: You hit one of us, you hit all of us. We will all come after you,” Roxas said.
The military lambasted the NPA for the attack on “noncombatants.
Lt. Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr., spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, issued a statement yesterday, saying the attack was “clearly another violation” of the Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law, as it was directed at civilians.
Burgos said eight of the nine people killed in the ambush were considered “noncombatants.”
The eight were village peacekeepers and guards who helped to keep order during the celebration of a feast in Barangay (village) Puso, La Castellana.
They were returning to La Castellana from the feast with three policemen and civilians on a truck when gunmen hiding in a sugarcane field raked the vehicle with automatic gunfire.
PO1 Richard Canja was killed. PO3 Constantino Villagas and PO2 Jeffrey Alvarez were hit but returned fire. But outnumbered and outgunned, the two policemen retreated.
The gunmen ordered the civilians off the truck and, despite their pleas, shot them.
“Despite our openness to the rebels returning to the democratic fold, the NPAs continue to wage armed violence, disrupt the peace-building initiatives of the government and even disrespect the peace process by violating past ceasefire pronouncements,” Burgos said.
“While we support the efforts of the government for peace and development, our focused combat operations will continue to target those who continue to pursue armed violence that has caused suffering to our people and loss of innocent lives,” he said.
Burgos said the military and the local police had created Task Force La Castellana to go after the NPA guerrillas responsible for Sunday’s killings.
“Our troops in the area will strictly follow the rules of engagement and will respect and promote human rights in all our operations,” Burgos said.
Roxas said the ambush was a grim reminder of the dangers and sacrifices that policemen face whenever they carry out their duties as law enforcers.
In recognition of their role in protecting the communities from criminals, Roxas said the Aquino administration would finance training programs and buy new equipment for policemen.
“And it is with that that I dedicate this coming year… we can gather all the resources… that you might need so that you can competently, adequately and faithfully do your duties every day,” he said.
To prevent a repeat of the ambush, Chief Supt. Agrimero Cruz Jr., Western Visayas police director, ordered local police in the region never to deploy fewer than 10 officers on security assignments.
“We cannot be absent in our security functions but we must ensure that our policemen have enough numbers to repel possible attacks,” Cruz said.
Col. Francisco Patrimonio, 302nd Infantry Brigade commander, said on Sunday that about 20 communist guerrillas ambushed the truck, but the NPA has not claimed responsibility for the attack.
But Governor Marañon called on the police to investigate the attack thoroughly because it might not be the work of the NPA.
Marañon noted that some of the dead appeared to have been finished off with shots to the head.
“It looked like the work of people high on drugs,” Marañon said.
“Finishing victims off, including civilians, with shots to the head does not sound like the usual work of the NPA,” Marañon said.
Killed in the ambush, besides Canja, were civilians Virginia Ordoñez, Ricky Dingcong and Lito Lucban, village guards Mario Ricablanca and Teotimo Esplegera of Barangay Puso, and village peacekeepers Ulysses Tamayor, Jonathan Mateo and Ramir Complesa.
Wounded besides Villagas and Alvarez were Jason Oximar, Victoriano Donasco, Jamil Roma, Bonifacio Bayate, Cristituto Perolino, Jerry Lacuedo and Roger Behar, and three others not yet identified. With a report from Nestor P. Burgos Jr. and Carla Gomez, Inquirer Visayas