Oplan Eraser heads: How the battle started in Payao

ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews/31 October) — What happened in Sitio Talaib, Barangay Labatan in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay was not an offshoot of the October 18 Al-Barka incident in Basilan. It was part of “Oplan Eraser heads.”

Documents obtained by MindaNews from the Philippine National Police (PNP) in Payao, indicate that “Oplan Eraser heads”  is a “joint PNP & AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) Law Enforcement Operation,” which includes the “process of serving warrants to top most wanted persons in the AOR (area of responsibility) and combating those who resist from the service of warrant.”

Payao Mayor Joeper Mendoza told MindaNews that his office received reports government troops were building up their presence in barangay Labatan as early as September.

Senior Inspector Rolando Bartolome, Payao police chief, said, “joint forces composed of municipal police, members of the 53rd infantry battalion of the AFP and some CAFGU units, numbering some 100 armed forces, went to Sitio Talaib to serve warrants of arrest against four identified suspected criminals and several John Does on October 14. ”

Two sets of warrants were being served that day for Talib Jail Asaaali, Juaning Abdulsalam, and Putot Jackaria.  One was for kidnapping and serious illegal detention and the other was for slight illegal detention with robbery.  The arrest warrants were signed by Zamboanga Sibugay Regional Trial Court Executive Judge Reubin Maraon on June 20, 2007, some four years ago.

The warrant was issued 10 days after Italian missionary, Fr. Giancarlo Bossi, parish priest of Payao, was kidnapped. Among the suspects were Jackaria and Abdulsalam.

On October 15, the police station in Payao reported to the PNP provincial director that at 2 p.m., government troops encountered about 200 heavily armed men believed to be members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Sitio Talaib. Four soldiers were injured in the encounter: Privates First Class Jul Sajili, Gery Dinurog and Glen Sulu and Cafgu member Hamid Sariul.

Firefight continued until October 25. Residents said this was characterized by intermittent aerial and ground bombing. By October 26, the AFP announced that they had successfully occupied Sitio Talaib without further casualties.

How it started

Barangay Labatan is an isolated coastal barangay buffered by swampland facing the island comprising the municipalities of Talusan, Mabuhay and Oluntanga. The coast of the barangay is accessible by a 15-minute pumpboat ride, but the wide area of swamp poses a challenge to anyone wishing to reach its mainland.

The barangay was declared a Peace and Development Community (PDC) by the municipal government under the defunct ACT for Peace program of the national government and the United Nations Multidonor Program in 2006.

The ACT for Peace is a program designed for peace building and conflict transformation in support of the implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement between government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)  while communities affected by the conflict between the government and the MNLF were transformed into PDCs and were provided assistance.

Sitio Talaib used to be a military camp of the MNLF, named Camp Hadji Suaib of the 2nd Marine Brigade of the Bangsamoro Armed Force as indicated in the same PNP report cited above. The report contained pictures of the camp. One photograph is that of a session hall where the flags of the MNLF, the Philippines and Bangsamoro were painted at the entrance of the hall and freely flown on three flag poles.

The mayor of Payao acknowledged that during the past years, members of the MNLF coordinated with his office with regard to community trainings being conducted in the PDC.

By June 2011, the mayor said, he received information that armed groups identified by local residents as members of the MILF had started occupying the former MNLF camp.

The report to the PNP provincial director dated October 26 indicated that the former MNLF camp was under Commander Iner Tarolan Misuari, who vacated the area “due to outnumbered (sic) by said lawless elements”.

MILF spokesperson Von al Haq told MindaNews the MILF did not establish a camp there but acknowledged there are MILF communities nearby.

The mayor said that due to the growing concerns of the local residents, he convened the Municipal Peace and Order Council on June 24, 2011, with the provincial command of the PNP, the representatives of 102nd Brigade and 53rd Infantry Battalion in attendance.

During this meeting, the MPOC passed resolution 002-2011, requesting the “Coordinating Committee on Hostilities” (actually, it is the Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities or CCCH)  of  the government and MILF peace panels, “authority to conduct investigation and verification on the alleged presence of MILF members at Sitio Tambo, Labatan, Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay.”

The resolution stemmed from the report of the barangay officials on the presence of MILF elements bearing “long and high powered fire arms”.

The resolution further stated:  “Whereas, with the said scenario, many of the residents had abandoned their homes and evacuated to the Municipality of Talusan; classes of all grade levels of Labatan Elementary School and neighboring schools are suspended since teachers have refused to teach for security reason, to the extent many of the residents of barangay Poblacion are dreadful and became even panic (sic).”

The mayor said that copies of the resolution were sent to the PNP, AFP and through known MILF conduits.

During that time, the mayor said there was no immediate response from the AFP, PNP and the MILF.

On the part of the new occupants of Sitio Talaib, the mayor talked to a certain Imam Yasin who was a local leader in the area. The imam (a Muslim religious leader), the mayor said, told him that what was being operated in Sitio Talaib was just an “Alternative Learning Center.”

“Bisan nag-istorya sila nako, wala ko naghatag og permiso sa ilaha.” (Even if they talked to me, I did not give them my permission), the mayor said.

How it ended

The AFP claimed at least 15 members of the armed group operating in Sitio Talaib were killed as evidenced by a “freshly dug grave.”

A  resident in Payao who has communication lines with the armed group in Sitio Talaib denied military claims of casualties on the part of the “lawless elements” and said “may 16 sugatan lang” (there are only 16 wounded).

As the AFP announced their occupation of Sitio Talaib, Bartolome said, “We have not been able to arrest the lawless elements that we were after,” referring to Asaali, Abdulsalam and Jackaria.

He added: “They remain at large.”

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) in its latest report at 8 a.m. October 28, recorded the number of evacuees from the towns of Payao, Alicia, Talusan, Mabuhay and Olutanga at 19,066 residents, of whom 5,420 are from Payao.

The 70 families from Sitio Talaib who fled their homes on the 14th and 15th have not returned to their sitio, Labatan barangay captain Saraman Badol said, adding there were about 1,000 families in the barangay who evacuated only to the town center. (Jules L. Benitez/MindaNews)