Villagers flee as military operation in Sibugay intensifies

IPIL, Zamboanga Sibugay (MindaNews/25 October) – The number of families displaced by the ongoing military operation in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay against “lawless elements” has reached 2,368 families as of Monday, records at the provincial office of the Department of Social Welfare and Development showed.

Payao Mayor Jeomar Mendoza said Monday that 917 families went to their relatives living in safer areas of the municipality. The others fled to the neighboring towns of Alicia (1,237 families) and Talusan in Olutanga Island (214 families).

Mendoza said the evacuees came from Barangay Labatan and nearby barangays.

He disclosed that he instructed the displaced families to stay with their relatives in safe areas and not to troop to the town hall since there is reportedly a threat to attack the town proper.

As part of the precautionary measures, the mayor said he ordered businesses to close by 5 p.m. daily and the municipal hospital to close at night. Those who need medical treatment at night would be referred to other hospitals in the province, he added.

Mendoza also ordered the suspension of classes in elementary and secondary schools.

Flordeliza Alar, provincial coordinator of the government’s Pantawid ng Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), said some of the displaced persons are living in makeshift tents.

“Some of these IDPs (internally displaced persons) are in government centers while most of them are living precariously with their relatives,” she added.

Alar revealed that around 350 families in Barangay Labatan were trapped by the intense firefights that erupted Monday between government troops and suspected lawless elements.

Payao municipal welfare officer Belen Clavejo Diaz, however, assured that the local government was “doing its best to respond to the needs of the IDPs.”

Diaz said relief goods have been delivered to the IDPs, although she acknowledged difficulty in locating them since most of them are staying with their relatives.

Mendoza said they have extended relief goods to some 700 families.

OV-10 bombers did two rounds in sitio Taib, Barangay Labatan at noon Monday, and a third at around 4:30 p.m. on the same day. The explosions could be heard as far as Ipil, some 60 kilometers west of the site of encounter.

Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang, Western Mindanao Command spokesperson, said four Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels were killed in the renewed assault on a suspected lair of “lawless elements” in Labatan. Two soldiers were killed and four others were injured.

He clarified the assault was aimed at dismantling a criminal group under Juaning Abdusalam in line with President Aquino’s directive for the military and police to go after lawless elements.

Abdusallam reportedly leads a lawless group with alleged links to the MILF. His men were the suspects of the Oct. 8 kidnapping of Monalisa Capa in Pitogo town, Zamboanga del Sur.

Wesmincom chief Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer said the joint law enforcement operations against the group of Abdulsalam will continue.

“He should be brought to justice for all the past kidnappings and extortions done by him and his group.” Ferrer said.

“(The) clamor of the people of Zamboanga Sibugay is to end Abdulsalam’s notoriety,” he said, adding the MILF can actually assist them, through the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) and the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostility (CCCH), in getting Abdulsalam.

But the MILF alleged the government troops attacked the forces of the 113th Base Command of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) in Labatan.

MILF spokesperson Von Al Haq in a text message said the military violated the Agreement on the General Cessation of Hostilities (AGCH) and on civilian protection between the government and the rebel group.

The civilians, he said, bear the brunt of what he called excessive use of force on a pre-dominantly Moro community.

Von Al Haq added that the renewed assault on the area was unfortunate since “the MILF central committee declared a ceasefire Oct. 22 and ordered all its ground troops to maintain their defensive position.” For the rebel group, defensive position means returning to their designated camps and to fight only when provoked.

The ceasefire declaration, according to Al Haq was made in keeping with the primacy of the peace talks so that “the Joint Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities (JCCCH) can assess the situation and deescalate the tension.”

The renewed assault, he said, came while the JCCCH and members of the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team (IMT) were on their way to Zamboanga Sibugay.

Two soldiers and a militiaman were injured in an encounter between the MILF and government forces in Labatan on Oct. 15.

Col. Santiago Baluyot, the 102 Infantry Brigade chief based here, told reporters the soldiers together with the police were on a mission to serve the warrant of arrest for Abdusalam when allegedly fired upon.

On Oct. 20, seven soldiers were killed and eight others were injured in separate ambush incidents in the province, two days after 19 soldiers were killed in a clash with MILF rebels in Al-Barka town, Basilan.

The first ambush took place in Barangay Gulayon in Alicia town around 7:21 p.m. leaving four soldiers dead and five others wounded.

The second ambush occurred in Barangay Simbol in Kabasalan town around 11:30 p.m., and left three policemen, including Inspector Rizaldy Calibugar, dead.

Provincial police chief Senior Supt. Ruben Cariaga identified the two other slain policemen as SPO1 Lito Arcenal and PO2 Lito Tayan.

P01 Joel Capitania and Pfc. Hermes Sagario of the 53rd Infantry Battalion were wounded.

The MILF immediately owned up to the ambush in Alicia and Kabasalan towns as retaliation for previous military actions in nearby Payao town. (Antonio Manaytay, with reports from MindaNews in Zamboanga City)