Army says sorry to birdwatchers for clash with NPA in Malaybalay

CAPITAN ANGHEL, Malaybalay City (MindaNews/14 February) – An Army official has expressed apologies for the encounter between soldiers and suspected New People’s Army (NPA) rebels in a popular bird watching site near a protected area here that caught seven foreign birdwatchers in surprise.

“They were in shock and still shaken,” Army Lt. Col. Nassar Lidasan said of the seven foreigners caught in the crossfire between his troops and rebels in Barangay Dalwangan Friday.

Lidasan, chief of the Army 1st Special Forces Battalion spoke briefly with Peter Simpson, one of the foreigners over the phone Friday afternoon.

The Army officer offered Simpson his apologies for the near-tragic incident.

“The bird watchers scampered for cover when the firing started. They did not know what was happening,” Lidasan said.

Simpson and six other foreigners identified as British nationals Paul Thomas Rendel, Jill Patricia Rendel; Danish nationals Leo Soegaard Borch, Birgette Noerregaard, Ole Frederiksen; and Australian national Richard Lindsay Johnstone trekked to Mangasa, Barangay Dalwangan see a Philippine Eagle nest when a 10-minute clash between Army soldiers and NPA rebels erupted at 8:51 a.m. Friday.

Not expecting to be caught in a firefight, the bird watchers scampered for cover but Johnstone got separated from the group. He was reunited with his companions only at 2pm at Del Monte lodge in Dalwangan.

Their Filipino guide Carlito Gayramara, 61, was wounded and brought to Malaybalay Polymedic General Hospital.

Lidasan said his troops, who have been in frequent clashes with the rebels since Feb. 10, did not know of the presence of the birdwatchers.

“I really wanted to apologize to the birdwatchers. Have we known they were there we would have not engaged the rebels,” he said.

Col. Jesse Alvarez, chief of the 403rd Infantry Brigade said they were surprised when they were told of the presence of the bird watchers.

Alvarez said their soldiers have been hunting the NPA rebels since Feb. 10 when the Army Special Forces clashed with the rebels resulting to the death of one soldier.

“Nobody coordinated with us. We could have advised them not to go,” he said.

Dalwangan Barangay Chair Esperanza Martinez confirmed that the mountains of the Mt. Kitanglad range near their village were the scenes of heavy fighting the past days.

“We can hear loud explosions from our village. Sadly, the bird watchers did not coordinate with us,” she said.

Daniel Somera, Protected Area Superintendent for Mount Kitanglad of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said their office granted the foreigners a permit to watch the Philippine Eagle nest in Mangasa from Feb. 10 to 14, 2015.

Aside from the Philippine Eagle, the Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park is home to endemic bird species like the Kitanglad leaf-warbler Apo Myna and Whitehead Swiftlet.

It was declared as a national park in 1990, and became a full-fledged protected area in November 2000 through Republic Act 8976. (Froilan Gallardo/MindaNews)