ILOILO CITY, Philippines — Residents terrified by the killing of 14 persons in coordinated police and military operations in Negros Oriental on Saturday have been sleeping in the middle of sugarcane fields, plantations, and in other people’s houses.
Citing a report from a priest in the community, San Carlos Bishop Gerardo Alminaza said the residents were afraid to sleep in their own houses because they had attended a meeting of a farmer’s group whose leaders and members were among those killed by police and soldiers.
The Catholic Church is organizing psycho-social interventions to help those severely affected deal with the trauma aside from spiritual services to the grieving, Alminaza said.
Police officers and soldiers killed 14 persons in joint operations to serve search warrants for unlicensed firearms.
The fatalities included eight in Canlaon City, four in Manjuyod town, and two in Santa Catalina town.
Twelve others were arrested — including Corazon Javier, coordinator of the women’s group Gabriela, and Azucena Garubat, Anakpawis partylist coordinator.
Alminaza said they had offered legal assistance to three detained women.
Fatalities were suspected of being NPA rebels
Col. Raul Tacaca, chief of the Negros Oriental Police Provincial Office, earlier said the 14 persons died in a shootout with police officer and soldiers who were separately serving search warrants for illegal possession of firearms.
The operatives mostly coming from the Philippine National Police (PNP) Regional Public Safety Battalion, the PNP Special Action Force, and the Philippine Army allegedly recovered mostly handguns, rifle grenades, ammunition, and subversive documents.
PNP officials said the subject of the warrants were members or supporters of the New People’s Army.
But this has been refuted by the families of those who were killed and arrested.
They alleged that their relatives were unarmed and gunned down inside their houses.
“This seems less and less an operation in the homes of suspected communist rebels as the PNP said, but are rather coordinated operations against strong and vocal communities whose leaders and members are part of progressive organizations… As the families have already reiterated, the victims are not communist rebels, but farmers and proven residents in the area,” Cristina Palabay, secretary general of the human rights group Karapatan, said.
Governor seeks explanation
Negros Oriental Gov. Roel Degamo was seeking an explanation of why 14 persons died in a matter of hours in the coordinated police and military operations.
“I have no problem if they were serving legitimate search warrants (issued by courts). But the problem is, why were there so many dead? I cannot accept that,” Degamo told the INQUIRER.
He said he could also not understand how the fatalities were able to resist arrest, as the police and military claimed when the operations were conducted past midnight and in the homes of the subjects of the search warrants.
“A [.45-caliber pistol] against Armalites?” he asked.
Degamo said the provincial government would provide financial assistance of a maximum of P5,000 each to the families of those who died.
He said the families of those who died believed they were victims of injustice and could file complaints at the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the courts.
The CHR in Central Visayas has sent a team to Negros Oriental to investigate the killings.
Lawyer Arvin Odron, CHR Central Visayas director, said they would investigate if the operations followed prescribed procedures.
Police open to investigations
Brig. Gen. Debold Sinas, chief of the Central Visayas Police Regional Office, said they would welcome any investigation and said that the PNP Regional Internal Affairs Services would also conduct its own.
Sinas insisted that the operations they conducted in different parts in Negros Oriental were all legitimate.
But former Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano, chair emeritus of the farmers’ group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, said farmers involved in struggles for land and other rights were being targeted in the guise of anti-criminality operations.
“This Oplan Tokhang-style of summary executions deserve renewed global outrage and condemnation,” he said in a statement.
He noted that the police had apparently specifically targeted males — “father and sons and siblings.”
Among those killed in Canlaon City were brothers Edgardo and Ismael Avelino in Barangay Panubigan; Melchor Panares, 67, and his son, Mario, 46, of Barangay Bayog; and Rogelio Recomono, 52, and his son Ricky, 28, of Barangay Masulog.
Alminaza said they were collaborating with the local police to provide render social services and support to affected communities.
“The local police are also concerned how to restore people’s trust and confidence in them since it was the regional police who did it without their knowledge and now they’re faced with possible retaliation from the other group and negative publicity,” the prelate said. —With a report from Nestle L. Semilla