Armed men disarm SMI guards; exploration activities suspended

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews/28 November)—Armed men struck anew at the remote mines development site of Sagittarius Mines Inc., forcing the foreign-backed company to temporarily suspend exploration activities in the area, officials said on Monday.

John Arnaldo, Sagittarius Mines corporate communications manager, said around 20 armed men raided a company drilling site in Sitio Tukay Mal, Barangay Tablu, in Tampakan, South Cotabato at 8:15 a.m. on Sunday.

“Fortunately, they did not harm the eight security guards but took away their firearms. There was also no damage to properties,” he told MindaNews.

“Drilling activities in the area have been temporarily suspended because of what happened,” Arnaldo added.

Asked about the apparent security lapse, he said they have been working closely with government authorities and the local communities to ensure the safety of employees in the area.

Lt. Col. Alexis Noel Bravo, commander of the 27th Infantry Battalion, said the armed men were not members of the communist New People’s Army rebels.

“They belong to a bandit group,” he said, identifying their leader as Batas Capion, reportedly a brother of Dagil Capion, who was earlier tagged by the military as behind the ambush last March involving workers of a construction company hired by Sagittarius Mines for a road project.

Dagil Capion had confirmed in a telephone interview that he was involved in the ambush in Sitio Datalbiao in Barangay Danlag, also in Tampakan town, that left three persons dead.

He said they were prompted to resort to extralegal ways out of disgust over the company’s alleged indifference to their various demands.

The ambush had also forced the company to suspend work activities in the area.

Bravo said pursuit operations were ongoing against the armed that disarmed the mining firm’s security guards on Sunday.

Aside from the firearms, the armed men also took away the security guards’ uniforms and food rations, the military officer said.

On New Year’s Day in 2008, NPA guerrillas attacked the base camp of Sagittarius Mines in Barangay Tablu, burning facilities and equipment worth P12 million. No one was hurt in the incident.

This was the same village where the armed men disarmed the mining firm’s security guards last Sunday.

The B’laan tribe mostly inhabits the communities within the mines development site of Sagittarius Mine, which also straddles the towns of Kiblawan in Davao del Sur and Columbio in Sultan Kudarat.

Members of this tribe are known for roaming the mountains with their guns and other deadly weapons, either for hunting or for security purposes.

Aside from the security threats, Sagittarius Mines is faced with an open-pit ban imposed by the provincial government of South Cotabato. The local Catholic Church is also vehemently opposing the mining project on concerns over human health, the environment and food security.

Sagittarius Mines’ exploration permit was recently renewed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The Tampakan project is touted as the largest known undeveloped copper-gold deposit in Southeast Asia

Should the venture proceed to commercial phase, it would be the largest single foreign direct investment in the Philippine with a value of $5.9 billion.

Sagittarius Mines is controlled by Xstrata Copper, the world’s fourth largest copper producer, with Australian firm Indophil Resources NL as the junior equity partner. (Bong Sarmiento/MindaNews)