MANILA, Philippines — President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has assured the public that his administration is carrying out measures to prevent communist insurgents from committing further “terroristic activities” in Masbate following a series of clashes between the rebels and security forces in the province in the past week.
The president ordered the Philippine National Police to increase police presence and visibility in schools affected by actions recently taken by the New People’s Army (NPA), Defense officer in charge Carlito Galvez Jr. told regional military and police commanders from the Bicol region on Friday.
Galvez said Army and PNP units had intensified their operations against the NPA and started training and giving lectures to local government and school officials on “how to counter the rebels’ misinformation campaign.”
“School officials were also briefed on how to react appropriately to a similar situation involving firefights or [improvised explosive device, or IED] incidents in areas with close proximity to learning institutions,” he said.
Citing assessments by security officials, Galvez said the rebel attacks were “acts of desperation” after they encountered a series of setbacks in recent clashes with government troops.
He noted an “emerging pattern” in the NPA’s attacks on government forces that included detonating IEDs near populated areas, such as schools, “with little or no regard for the safety of students, teachers, and other civilians.”
For NPA anniversary
The rebels said their recent “tactical offensive” in the province was intended to mark the 54th anniversary of the founding of the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
The also posted propaganda tarpaulins to hail the NPA anniversary.
Galvez said the rebels detonated IEDs in the towns of Placer and Dimasalang on Wednesday as soldiers were removing their propaganda materials.
Capt. Frank Roldan, spokesperson for the 9th Infantry Division (ID), said Cpl. Antonio Parreño Jr. was killed in the first rebel attack on March 20 while two other soldiers were wounded by improvised bombs in Placer.
Army Sgt. Leo Almario II and policeman Jasper Gigante were also wounded in a clash with rebels at Barangay Gaid in Dimasalang town, Roldan said.
Officials of the Department of Education (DepEd) in the Bicol region suspended face-to-face classes in elementary and secondary schools in four Masbate towns “until the situation normalizes.”
In a statement on Friday, the NPA denied firing at any school in the province as the military alleged. The rebels claimed that it was the soldiers who were responsible for indiscriminate firing on school grounds.
“The military intentionally targeted the schools under its false flag tactic to make it appear that the NPA violated the rules of war when it launched its tactical offensive,” said Luz del Mar, the spokesperson for the NPA-Masbate on the CPP website Philippine Revolution Web Central.
“Their goal is to cover their failure and justify their militarization of schools along with their military operations. In fact, the NPA Masbate received reports about the presence of soldiers in schools,” Del Mar said.
The rebels urged DepEd Bicol to conduct its own investigation of what happened “so it does not become an instrument of misinformation by the military.”The NPA said that it would be ready to conduct its own investigation and take responsibility if it had made an error and attacked civilians.
Trauma on campus
The “anniversary attacks” traumatized students and teachers, and affected 112 schools with 31,764 students in the towns of Cawayan, Dimasalang, Esperanza, Placer, and Pio V. Corpuz, according to Martin Espayos of DepEd in Masbate.
It was DepEd that complained about the series of hostilities — all happening near schools — that started in Barangay Villahermosa in Cawayan town on March 20.
In an official statement on Friday, Masbate schools division superintendent Nene Merioles said that a classroom at Villahermosa National High School was hit by gunfire when fighting erupted as classes were ongoing.
She said another clash occurred near Tomas V. Rivera Memorial High School in Barangay Madbad, followed by encounters in Placer and Dimasalang on Wednesday morning.
Merioles said the Placer clash was only 200 meters away from Locso-an Elementary School and Arriesgado-Sevellino National High School, causing panic among students and teachers who scampered after hearing gunfire and explosions. Four rebels yield
Roldan said on Saturday that four alleged NPA rebels surrendered to government troops with some of their firearms in Milagros town.
He said that the four rebels, who were not identified, gave themselves up to the 2nd Infantry Battalion at Barangay Bacolod around 5 p.m. on Friday.
The alleged Red fighters were members of the Larangan 2 and Komiteng Probinsya 4 of the NPA in Masbate.
Roldan said they turned over a carbine rifle with a magazine and 60 bullets; a 9mm KG9 with a magazine; an Ingram 9mm-caliber with a magazine; and an M1911-A1 .45-caliber pistol with a magazine. Maj. Gen. Adonis Bajao, commander of the 9ID and Joint Task Force Bicolandia, said the former rebels could help in the investigation of the recent attacks in Cawayan, Placer,s and Dimasalang on March 20 and March 22.
“This is of big help to authorities to make people behind the attacks accountable and maintain the peace and order,” Bajao said.
Night bomb blast
On Friday night, a bomb explosion alarmed the people of Placer.
According to a resident of Barangay Katipunan, they heard the explosion around 11 p.m. from the neighboring village of Manlut-od.
The Katipunan resident, who asked not to be identified in an online interview with the Inquirer, said someone from Manlut-od posted on social media that the military camp near the village plaza was bombed and this was confirmed by another resident.
As of Saturday afternoon, the authorities have not yet issued a statement regarding the reported bombing.