S. Kudarat villagers flee following series of clashes

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/23 June) – More than 2,000 residents from five villages of Palimbang town in Sultan Kudarat have fled their homes in the last three days following a series of clashes reportedly involving several local armed groups.

Lt. Col. Adolfo Espuelas Jr., commander of the Army’s 73rd Infantry Battalion, said Thursday pockets of skirmishes among suspected members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and an alleged bandit group have erupted in several villages of Palimbang town reportedly due to a long-drawn land dispute in the area.

He said the conflict started last Monday when at least 60 armed men aboard four pump boats arrived and occupied a portion of the coastal village of Kidayan in Palimbang.

Local policemen reportedly responded to the scene but were fired upon by members of the armed band.

“Based on initial reports, the conflict involved members of various groups but it mainly stemmed from a land dispute among local clans there,” Espuelas said in a radio interview.

The Army official said the clashes, which have spread to several other barangays, already resulted to the killing of a suspected bandit and injured two others.

He said it also forced residents of Barangays Kidayan, Namat Masla, Kisek, Batang-baglas and Kiponget to evacuate from the area for fear of getting caught in the crossfire.

Palimbang Mayor Abubakar Maulana appealed Thursday for immediate intervention by government troops to resolve the worsening conflict in the area.

The mayor acknowledged that the clashes were triggered by a land conflict in the area but cited that “80 percent” of those involved are into rampant extortion activities in the area.

He said the involved armed groups have been allegedly demanding hefty payments from the owners of the Lao Construction Company, which is currently constructing at least four bridges in the northern portion of Palimbang, supposedly in exchange for their protection.

Maulana said the armed factions were being led by a certain Tato Musa alias Kumander Paradise, Mama Pangabangan alias Kumander Double M and Dods Siman alias Kumander Ulo.

“These groups have long been sowing trouble in our area. It’s time for the national government and the military to come in and resolve the situation,” the mayor said.

Col. Manuel Ramos, spokesperson of the Army’s 1002nd Brigade, said they were currently verifying the identity of the armed factions and reports that the armed band that docked in Barangay Kidayan last Monday was composed of MILF members.

“If indeed they were MILF members, we have existing mechanisms under the ongoing peace process that may deal with it. We’re very careful in dealing with this situation to avoid further complications,” he said.

Ramos said they were also coordinating with local government officials and other local leaders to resolve the conflict in a peaceful manner.

He added that they have requested officials of the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), a joint initiative of the government and the MILF that seeks to “interdict and isolate lawless elements that take refuge in or near MILF communities.” (Allen V. Estabillo / MindaNews)