TANDAG, Surigao del Sur (MindaNews/21 January) — An Army battalion of around 500 men and officers arrived here Wednesday on board a C-130 cargo aircraft from Mindoro for deployment against the New Peoples Army (NPA).
With the arrival of the 16th Infantry Battalion, there are now four army battalions operating in Surigao del Sur, mostly targeting the Andap Valley complex where most of the rebels are believed to be operating.
Gov. Johnny Pimentel welcomed the soldiers to his province. He said he asked for more Army battalions for deployment to end the problem of insurgency that has plagued their province since 1979.
“Our prayers have been heard. We welcome you here knowing that you can help solve the insurgency problem in our problems,” he said.
Pimentel said their province ranks third nationwide in the number of communist guerrillas, after Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental
“Come election time, these rebels will again harass candidates campaigning in their bailiwicks. This has to stop,” he said.
Pimentel said he sees no problem with the deployment of more troops even if most of the human rights groups and militant left accused the military for allegedly backing up the paramilitary group Magahat-Bagani who were identified by witnesses as having killed Emerito Samarca, Executive Director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development (Alcadev), a school for Lumads; and Lumad leaders Dionel Campos and Bello Sinzo on September 1.
“No clear evidence”
“There is no clear evidence that the military is behind the killings or that they are supporting the Lumad killers,” Pimentel told reporters
Pimentel said he is satisfied that the Philippine National Police has put bounties of P1.2 million each for the arrest of suspected Magahat leaders Bobby Tejero, his older brother Loloy and Garito Layno.
He said the bounty will one day help authorities arrest the three suspects.
“The rest of the demands made by the evacuees and human rights groups are not doable at the level of provincial government,” Pimentel said.
Pimentel said the demands that could not be met by the provincial government are: pullout of all military troops; suspension of military operations; and resumption of the peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front.
He said at least 1,000 evacuees are still at the Tandag sports center, too scared to go back home with the ongoing military operations.
At the end of the Senate committee hearings on Lumad killings held here on October 1 and 2, Tandag Bishop Nereo Odchimar said he was still waiting for answers to critical questions about the “apparent unholy alliance between the military and the paramilitary which the military vehemently denies.”
At the hearing, the Bishop told the Senate Committees on Justice and Human Rights, and Cultural Communities that he is “baffled” why, despite the military’s denials of an alliance, Marcial Belandres, one of the leaders of the paramilitary group and principal suspect in the October 2014 killing of Manobo teacher Henry Alameda and Aldren Dumaguit, was among three persons presented as Datus in a press conference in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City on September 15.
In that press conference, Belandres and company cleared the military of alleged collusion with the paramilitary group and instead pointed to the NPA as the perpetrators of the killings and harassments.
Lt. Alfredo Bagbag of the 16th Infantry Battalion, who hails from Zamboanga del Sur, carried an AR 15 rifle, pouches of extra bullets and a longing for home. His deployment here makes him “nearer to home and my family,” he said.
Bagbag immediately sought fellow Army officers for the best travel route to Zamboanga del Sur where his family is based.
The commander of the Charlie Company said it is hard for a soldier to see his children growing up without his presence. “I only see them twice a year during my visits. I am hoping I can visit them more now that my battalion is deployed here in Surigao del Sur,” he said.
Lt. Col. Andres Ferrer, commander of the 16th In Infantry Battalion said being a soldier is difficult for the families that are left behind.
Ferrer’s family is based in Iloilo and like Bagbag, he rarely sees them. “That is why I explained to them before we left that soldiers have a sacrifice to make. This is our job.”
Ferrer said many of his men did not have the time to bid their families goodbye when they left Mindoro for Surigao del Sur.
“We just have to man up our emotions. We are professional soldiers and we have a duty to serve the people in Surigao del Sur,” he said. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)