KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews/11 March) — The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has filed double murder complaints against three tribal residents of a remote village in Tampakan town in South Cotabato, in connection with the daring killing last month of a prominent tribal leader and his wife.
Timmy Rejano, NBI-Region 12 supervising agent, said Friday they filed the twin murder complaints before the Provincial Prosecution Office in Koronadal City in South Cotabato against Gazmin Sucal and brothers Ricky and Morito Puli, who were tagged as directly behind the slaying of S’bangken tribal chieftain Tonio Binuhay and his pregnant wife Rosanna last Feb. 22.
Rejano said they have “a very strong case” with the positive identification of the assailants by at least five witnesses.
Binuhay, who was also a Barangay Tablu councilor, and his pregnant wife were gunned down shortly after arriving at their residence in Purok Quezon, Barangay Sta. Cruz in Tampakan at around 8pm, a police report said.
The gunmen, who were armed with M-16 Armalite rifles and handguns, reportedly fired at the couple while they were alighting from their vehicle.
Witnesses said Binuhay initially tried to flee from the scene but that the gunmen caught up with him.
The victims died instantly due to multiple gunshot wounds mainly from an M-16 Armalite rifle.
Rejano said the suspects, who are currently at large, are all residents of Barangay Tablu in Tampakan and members of the B’laan tribe’s S’bangken tribal community.
He said Ricky is a sitio leader in Tablu while Morito is a former member of the Tablu Barangay Council.
Rejano said they would have arrested the suspects earlier but they decided to back off as the prescribed inquest period already lapsed when they started working on the case.
“We’re abiding by the principles of due process. We’ll wait for the decision of our prosecutors regarding the complaint before making any further move,” he said.
The NBI official urged the suspects to face the music, saying they are financially capable to hire lawyers since they have earned money from the operations of the mining firm.
Rejano did not issue any comment regarding the possible motive of the killing and its supposed links with the ongoing operations of foreign-backed mining firm Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI) in the mineral-rich mountains of Tampakan.
“(But) the early resolution of the case and the identification of the suspects prevented a potential tribal war in the area that could have affected directly the operations of SMI,” he said.
Local reports said that the suspects were allegedly angry with the victim on the issue involving compensation the company pays for farmlands affected by its mining exploration activities.
Binuhay is a known staunch supporter of the company, which is currently on the final preparatory stages for its proposed large-scale copper and gold mining project in the area.
He had pinned high hopes on the company for a better life of their tribe through the livelihood and scholarship programs given by the project.
Following Binuhay’s murder, SMI immediately declared a temporary suspension of its field operations as precautionary measure.
Company officials also declared then that the incident “was not related to the Tampakan mining project.”
Sagittarius Mines, which eyes commercial production in 2016, is controlled by Xstrata Copper, the world’s fourth largest copper producer, with Australian firm Indophil Resources NL as minority equity partner.
Based on the Mine Project Feasibility Study submitted by Sagittarius Mines to the government last April, the Tampakan project could yield an average life of mine annual production rate of 370,000 metric tons and 360,000 ounces of copper and gold, respectively. The initial life mine estimate for the Tampakan project was pegged at 17 years.
The Tampakan project is touted as the largest known undeveloped copper-gold deposit in Southeast Asia.
Based on its study, Sagittarius Mines will employ open-pit mining to extract the massive deposit, a method banned by the provincial government of South Cotabato. Several sectors have been pushing for an amendment to the prohibition. (Allen V. Estabillo and Bong Sarmiento/MindaNews)