Col. Benedict Arevalo, commanding officer of the29th Infantry Battalion, today told MindaNews they have “minimized if not eliminated” the rebels, although “pursuit operations are still ongoing”.
Arevalo said that as of today, the clashes have displaced 155 families (close to 800 individuals) in three villages “but they would soon be advised to return."
Quezon Mayor Stewart Leonardo has confirmed the evacuations but said the residents could go back to their homes either on Friday or Saturday.
He said only 83 families so far had fled to Puntian and Palacapao villages, along the Bukidnon-Davao highway.
Provincial board member Alfeo Baguio, who is from Quezon town, said restricted entry had been imposed in two remote villages, in C-Handumanan and Minsamongan, where the military conducted pursuit operations yesterday.
He said in those two barangays, where there are around 500 residents, some villagers would seek refuge at the barangay hall at night and return to their homes at day time.
Arevalo said the evacuees fled to highway barangays of the town along the Bukidnon-Davao road and were attended to by the municipal government.
The military has warned of no let-up in the pursuit operations.
“We don’t tolerate their atrocities. We are not taking it lightly,” Arevalo said.
He said one of the wounded rebels captured was a certain Randy Bayot, who is allegedly a political officer and in charge of extorting from big companies.
But the Army official also admitted that among the six soldiers who were killed in the encounters was Lt. Ricardo Naguiat, a company commander.
Arevalo said they have requested the International Committee of the Red Cross to enter the area so they could help retrieve the wounded rebels. But he said the ICRC told him they would be ready by next week yet.
An ICRC official who was contacted by this reporter has yet to respond to requests for updates as of Thursday morning.
Maj. Michele Anayron Jr., spokesperson of the 4th Infantry Division, was quoted by MindaNews to have denied requests by the local government and ICRC to enter barangay Kiburiao as of February 24.
Anayron said in a MindaNews report that the fighting started Sunday when soldiers from the 29th IB encountered 30 NPA rebels protecting their makeshift camp in the mountain village of Sta. Cruz.
He said the fighting raged for more than four hours, but eventually the soldiers were able to dislodge the rebels and capture the camp.
He said the soldiers found two bodies of NPA rebels in the camp. One soldier also died in the gun battle.
Four hours later, he said, pursuing soldiers caught up with the rebels in nearby Barangay Lipa, also in Quezon town, triggering a three-hour gun battle which resulted in the death of four soldiers and six rebels.
Soldiers found three NPA rebels buried hastily along the route where the rebels have withdrawn, he added.
"Aside from their dead, 12 NPA rebels were wounded. We based our estimates on the text message we found on a cell phone we found on one of the dead rebels," he told MindaNews by phone.
He said a third gun battle occurred in the sugar fields of Kiburiao on Monday, killing two rebels and wounding three others.
He said MG-520 helicopters were deploy
ed in Quezon to help soldiers hunt the remnants of the rebel band.
"We think the main rebel band is still in the area and is trying to bring out their wounded," he said.
Arevalo said there has been no let-up in the pursuit operations against the rebels after they raided the Malaybalay City jail and carted away some firearms last month. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)