First Lieutenant Nathaniel Morales, 27th Infantry Battalion civil affairs division in-charge, said the military will field soldiers whether the company will request it or not. “It is our constitutional duty to protect lives and properties,” he added.
Suspected members of the New People’s Army (NPA) staged an attack on the mining firm on New Year’s Day, burning two buildings, according to the police.
Senior Supt. Robert Kiunisala, South Cotabato police director, said at least 40 heavily-armed NPA rebels forcibly entered the SMI base camp in Barangay Tablu, Tampakan around 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day.
The base camp is located about 25 kilometers from the headquarters in downtown Tampakan, a three-hour uphill ride.
Kiunisala said the rebels immediately disarmed and held the company's security personnel led by its chief security officer Joselito Velez.
No one was hurt in the attack but he said the rebels burned the base camp's administration building, quarters and offices of the United Pacific Drilling Corp. (UPD), a drilling firm contracted by SMI.
"It was very swift. It appears to (have been) a well-planned attack," he said.
Kiunisala said the attackers, who are reportedly members of the NPA's Front 76 operating in the provinces of South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat and portions of North Cotabato and Davao del Sur, were led by Emmanuel Fernandez alias Commander Bobo, alleged Front 76 secretary, and another alias Jeffrey.
Fernandez’ group has yet to issue a statement but GMANews.tv quoted Gregorio “Ka Roger” Rosal, Luzon-based spokesperson of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), as saying the NPA was behind the attack against SMI allegedly to punish the firm for “alleged land grabbing, plunder, and environmental destruction.”
“He said the rebels scheduled the attack during the holidays, when the firm's mining operations were at a standstill, and its workers were on a break,” GMANews.tv reported.
SMI is currently exploring the mountains of the boundaries of Tampakan, Columbio in Sultan Kudarat and Kiblawan in Davao del Sur, for a proposed large-scale copper and gold mining project in the area.
The company, which is now on extended pre-feasibility study stage, is backed by foreign mining firms Xstrata Copper and the Australian firm Indophil Resources NL.
SMI expects to exploit massive copper and gold resources by 2012.
Top investor Xstrata Copper issued a new estimate, its first since assuming management control in March 2007, pegging the resources at 2.2 billion tons, up 10 percent from the last estimate declared in April 2006.
The mining site’s upgraded measured, indicated and inferred resource totals 2.2 billion tons at a grade of 0.6% copper and 0.2 grams per ton gold and contains 12.8 million tons of copper and 15.2 million ounces of gold using a 0.3% copper cut-off grade, according to SMI.
The new mineral resource, which includes 24,700 meters of drilling conducted in 2007, also includes estimated average grades for molybdenum of 70 parts per million.
The April 2006 estimate pegged resources at two billion tons, containing 11.6 million tons of copper and 14.6 million ounces of gold at a 0.3% copper cutoff grade.
Rolando Doria, SMI local and regional affairs superintendent, said the firm has yet to make a stand on the matter of military deployment in their mine site.
“We understand, though, that they have a constitutional duty to perform,” he said, but pointed out that the deployment of more soldiers in the area may need community consultation.
He said the detachment attacked by the rebels, which is about 30 to 50 meters from the base camp, mainly serves as the military’s communication point.
Doria told MindaNews the base camp was secured by “blue guards” or company guards. He said they have left it to the police to investigate. The police had not sent a report as of 4 p.m. January 2.
But Doria acknowledged there may have been lapses in security because of the New Year.
The CPP through Rosal announced on December 23 that they would observe a four-day ceasefire from December 24 to 25 and December 31 to January 1 “as a matter of party policy and in deference to the Filipino holiday tradition.”
The government declared a "suspension of offensive military operations" against the NPA from December 16 to midnight of January 6.
1Lt Morales, who described Sagittarius as an “economic asset” of the government even if it is owned by foreign corporations, appealed to communities near the operations of the mining firm to help the military in securing the company by reporting sightings or providing information on armed men in the area. (MindaNews)