Mat peddlers not gov’t spies, relatives tell NPA

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/30 Sept) – The family members of the six sleeping mat peddlers held captive by the New People’s Army (NPA) since August 17 made an appeal for the immediate and safe release of their loved ones, stressing that the six are not government spies.

Fr. Nathan Lerio, SSJV, director of the archdiocese’s Social Action Center, joined the relatives of the vendors during a press conference held at the Archbishop’s House here Friday in appealing for a “national intervention.”

“Our Social Action Centers in Bukidnon and Davao are currently looking for ways to establish a link to the NDF (National Democratic Front) for a possible dialogue. I believe the religious sector can contribute much in elevating this issue to a national level as we appeal to the abductors to release the six mat peddlers immediately,” said Lerio.

He added that as soon as Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, who is currently in Poland and will be back next week, arrives, he will sign the archdiocese’s official petition letter and course it through the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

Lerio said they are still awaiting updates on the convergence of other religious sects for a unified interfaith statement.

“We hope the CBCP (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines) will also intervene and join us,” he said.

Last August 16, the NPA said in a phone interview that James Mabaylan, Nelson Bagares, Ronald Boiles, Segundino Dailo, Ernesto Calle Jr. and Julieto Sarsaba, all of Initao town in Misamis Oriental, were caught doing surveillance work along the boundaries of Davao del Norte’s Paquibato District and San Fernando, Bukidnon. The rebels alleged that mat peddling was just their cover.

Annabel Pacana, the family members’ spokesperson, told reporters that the six mat peddlers were forewarned by the locals not to enter known rebel strongholds.

“We still don’t understand why they insisted in using that route. All we knew was that they were going only to Davao,” said Pacana.

She posited that from Paquibato District in Davao del Norte, the six peddlers must have traversed through San Fernando, Bukidnon as a shortcut to Misamis Oriental.

“They have been peddling mats for 15 years already. They have no connection whatsoever with the military,” Pacana said.

She also said that although they have not received any word from the NPA, a staff at the mayor’s office at San Fernando town told them that the group that abducted the peddlers was under the command of NPA leader Leoncio Pitao, a.k.a. Kumander Parago.

Pacana said that Defense Secretary Voltaire Gasmin have assured them via text message that all of the peddlers are still alive.

In a statement Friday, the NDF Bukidnon-North Central Mindanao Region said they will release the six mat peddlers “sooner than expected” albeit in a “low profile” manner.

“We have received feelers that soon the six mat peddlers will be released but we will release them in a low profile way. As a humanitarian act, even though we have established that they are suspicious traders in that they were peddling in a very remote area. Why sell in the area when there are hardly any houses here?” the statement reads.

“They have been repeatedly reported to have hounded and harassed our communities by passing themselves off as former NPA comrades and most of the routes they take are the roads usually used by the military whenever they conduct combat operations,” it continues.

The statement also claimed that the six mat peddlers were the same people spotted by the guerillas asking locals names and whereabouts of certain “organizers” of the movement.

In an earlier interview, Lt. Col. Jose Maria Cuerpo, chief of the 8th Infantry Battalion based in Bukidnon, said they do not employ “assets” to do their surveillance and intelligence gathering for them.

“I do not know these persons. All I know is they were plain traders. They are not spies and we do not employ spies to do surveillance work,” he said. (Cong B. Corrales / MindaNews)