BUTUAN CITY—On Easter Sunday, Fr. Joesillo Amalla climbed the pulpit at Cathedral of St. Joseph here for his homily but began by blowing on something that looked like a whistle. “This,” he told the congregation, “is a spent [shell of a bullet for an M16] that I picked up when we were attacked during the Good Friday procession.”
Amalla was referring to the attack on security forces keeping the peace during the Stations of the Cross devotion allegedly by communist New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas on Mt. Mahayahay in Sitio Iyao in Barangay Anticala on March 29.
The military’s 4th Infantry Division in Cagayan de Oro City said in a statement that a militiaman was killed when some 15 NPA guerrillas fired on the security forces deployed to ensure the safety of some 5,000 Catholics who joined the Stations of the Cross devotion.
Lt. Col. Eugenio Osias IV, 4th ID spokesperson, said the security forces returned fire, fighting the rebels for 10 minutes before the attackers withdrew.
No civilian casualties
“There were no civilian casualties,” Osias said.
The attack began just as the devotion had reached the Third Station at about 5 a.m.
The devotees, including Agusan del Norte Rep. Jose Aquino II, were trapped in the area for six hours as government troops went after the fleeing rebels.
The incident, which coincided with the NPA’s 44th founding anniversary, angered Catholics in Butuan City. Amalla , the parish priest, condemned the NPA for “disrespecting” the event.
“Why did they attack us? This has nothing to do with their fight,” Amalla said.
The devotees thought the first burst of automatic fire was firecracker explosions and welcomed it with applause.
But when the firing continued, the security forces ordered the devotees to get down on the ground. It was then that the devotees realized that a fire fight was going on.
When the shooting stopped, the devotees rose and ran to the next Station of the Cross to continue praying.
But policemen stopped about 3,000 devotees from proceeding. Among them was Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos of the Diocese of Butuan who brought with him his entire official household.
At least five buses full of devotees were turned back.
Father Amalla led his group of devotees up to the last Station of the Cross. Still in his group was the Butuan representative’s wife, Mimi. The congressman had been spirited away by his security aides.
After the devotion, Amalla blessed the body of the slain militiaman. It must be during his visit to the site of the fire fight that he found the spent bullet case.
He took it to the pulpit on Easter Sunday to remind the congregation that those of them who were in the devotional procession on Good Friday were saved by God’s protection.
The attack continued to be the talk in Butuan City, and some information has it that the attack was not intended to be on the devotees but on Representative Aquino.
But a spokesperson for the NPA, Jorge Madlos, also known as Ka Oris, denied the NPA was involved in the attack.
Madlos said the incident was a “misencounter” between soldiers and policemen who had been tapped to secure the devotion.
Madlos said the area where the supposed attack took place was very close to the camp of the Army’s Special Forces, making it difficult for the NPA to launch an attack of any kind.
But the NPA could not have attacked the devotion because there was nothing to gain from such an action.
The devotion, he explained, was a religious event and the backlash on the NPA would have been serious.
Madlos proposed a deeper investigation into the alleged attack to find out what really happened.
“I called up our field commanders and they said they did not deploy any forces to the area,” he said.
“I would suggest that a fact-finding mission involving religious groups, the local government and nongovernmental organizations conduct an investigation so we could determine what really happened,” Madlos said.
Osias said the military expected the rebels to deny the attack.
But Dr. Naty Castro, secretary general of Karapatan in Caraga region, agreed that only an “impartial civilian investigation” could shed light on the supposed attack. With reports from Dennis Santos and Allan Nawal, Inquirer Mindanao