Communist leader says Butuan clash was a mis-encounter between gov’t forces

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DAVAO CITY, Philippines—A communist rebel leader in Mindanao has called for a civilian probe into the so-called “Good Friday ambush” in Butuan City which the military has blamed on the New People’s Army but which he claimed was really a “mis-encounter”  between government forces.

In an earlier statement, the military’s  4th Infantry Division based in Cagayan de Oro City said a militiaman was killed when some 15 NPA rebels fired on security forces deployed to ensure the safety of some 5,000 Catholic faithful  doing the Stations of the Cross in the village of Anticala about 5 a.m. Friday.

Lieutenant Colonel Eugenio Osias IV, division, said the security forces returned fire and engaged the rebels in a 10-minute firefight.

“There were no civilian casualties,”  he said, adding that the rebels had fled and were being pursued by troops.

A military field report said that the civilians who participated in the religious event, “including Agusan del Norte Representative Jose Aquino II,” were “trapped”  for nearly six hours as soldiers “chased”  the fleeing rebels.

The incident, which coincided with the NPA’s 44th anniversary, enraged Catholics in Butuan City, with the priest who officiated the religious rites condemning the NPA “for disrespecting the event.”

“Why did they attack us? This has nothing to do with their fight,” said Fr. Joesilo Amalla, parish priest at the St Joseph Cathedral.

But Jorge Madlos, spokesperson of the National Democratic Front in Mindanao, said he believed the incident was actually a “mis-encounter”  among soldiers, militiamen and policemen deployed to secure the event.

He said the area where the alleged NPA ambush took place was very close to the camp of the Army’s Special Forces, making it difficult for the NPA to launch any attack.

The NPA could not have carried out the attack, Madlos said, because there was nothing to be gained as it was a religious event and a backlash would be serious.

“I called up our field commanders and they said did not deploy any force in the area. I think it’s a mis-encounter between the Special Forces of the Philippine Army, the militiamen and the policemen,” said Madlos, who is also known as Ka Oris.

He said in order to settle the issue, an investigation should be conducted.

“I would suggest that a fact-finding mission involving religious groups, the local government and non-government-organizations be conducted so we could determine what really happened,”  Madlos added.

Osias said the military expected the communist rebels to make a denial “as they were used to making” such denials.

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Dr. Naty Castro, secretary general of Karapatan in the Caraga region, agreed that only an “impartial civilian investigation” could shed light on the  incident.

“The alleged encounter between the PNP/AFP and the NPA in Iyao, Brgy. Anticala, Butuan City must be thoroughly investigated in an impartial civilian mission to verify the conflicting statements regarding the incident from both sides,”  Castro said in a statement issued on Saturday.

She said Karapatan was willing to take part in the investigation “to help in clarifying this matter.”

“Only an impartial investigation by civilian authorities with the cooperation of [civil society organizations] can make the accusations of breach of rules of engagement clarified. Erring forces should be reprimanded and asked to account for their actions. This is the only way that the Butuan City public can be assured that no such incident will occur in the immediate and long-term future,”  Castro said.

Originally posted: 7:46 am | Saturday, March 30th, 2013

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