DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 16 September) — The killing of seven persons in Patikul, Sulu on Friday was a result of an encounter with the Abu Sayyaf, according to the military, but a Moro group says it was massacre of civilians allegedly harvesting mangosteen fruits while a university professor says it was a case of mistaken identity, the victims ending up as ‘collateral damage’ for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Propaganda!,” Lt. Col. Gerry Besana, spokesperson of the Western Mindanao Command said, as he dismissed allegations of massacre. He told MindaNews Saturday night via text message that the seven were “ASG (Abu Sayyaf Group) talaga mga yun” (all ASG members) and that 17 soldiers were even wounded during the encounter. An earlier press statement from Besana’s office said the soldiers were “slightly wounded.”
Besana said photographs of the seven bodies lined up, which went viral on social media, were taken after they were turned over to the local government unit on Saturday. He said the encounter happened on Friday and the slain victims were all brought to the hospital for forensic examination by the Philippine National Police (PNP). The victims’ families were able to claim the bodies on Saturday.
Besana also dismissed allegations of mistaken identity. “Paano magiging mistaken identity kung one hour and 30 minutes sila nakipagbarilan sa tropa inflicting 17 wounded sa tropa? Pasalamat nga dapat sila kasi dinala ng tropa mga napatay at itinurn over properly sa LGU (local government unit) for proper burial” (How could it have been a mistaken identity when they fought the troops for one hour and 30 minutes and 17 troops were wounded. They should be thankful because the troops brought the bodies and turned them over properly to the LGU for proper burial), he told MindaNews Sunday morning.
Suara Bangsamoro (Voice of the Bangsamoro) said what happened Friday was a massacre.
In a statement e-mailed to media outlets late Saturday evening, Jerome Succor Aba, national chair of Suara Bangsamoro, said members of civil society organizations in Sulu identified the victims as “husbands of Pantawid Pamilya beneficiaries in Patikul who were shot by elements of scout rangers while harvesting mangosteen fruits in the area.”
Aba said the victims — with ages ranging from 18 to 32, including a high school student — were from Barangay Tambang in Patikul who recently moved to an evacuation site in Barangay Igasan also in Patikul and who sought and were granted permission by the military to go to Sitio Tubig Bato in Barangay Kabuntakas to harvest mangosteen.
“There was an encounter between the Abu Sayaff and the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) that day. While they were in Kabuntakas, Scout Rangers mistook the seven as ASG members and captured them,” Aba said, citing reports from the victims’ families in Sulu.
Aba said the victims were still alive “in the hands of the military by noontime, but at around 5:00 in the afternoon, their lifeless bodies were delivered by the AFP to the local police station.”
A press statement issued shortly before noon Saturday by Besana’s office, the Western Mindanao Command’s Public Information Office, said soldiers under Task Group Panther led by Lt. Col. Samuel Yunque and Scout Rangers led by Captain Michael Aristores “encountered more or less 100 fully armed Abu Sayyafs under senior leader Radullan Sahiron and sub leaders Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan and Idang Susukan in Barangay Bakong, Patikul, Sulu” at around 1:30 p.m. on Friday.
Besana said three Indonesians kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf in January this year were rescued Saturday afternoon.
The press statement said the Joint Task Force Sulu headed by Brig. Gen. Divino Rey Pabayo, reported seven Abu Sayyaf members killed and six others wounded including Abu Sayyaf sub-leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan who was “seriously hit in his stomach and lower extremities.”
It said 17 soldiers were “slightly wounded” during the encounter due to shrapnel while “more casualties on the enemy side are yet to be determined based on the blood stains spotted in the encounter site.”
The Westmincom said the injured were rushed to the Kuta Heneral Teodulfo Bautista Station Hospital for treatment while the seven cadavers were brought to the hospital for forensic examination and proper disposition.
It said troops recovered from the encounter site — with the seven alleged Abu Sayyaf members — “one M16 rifle, four 5.56 mm magazines, one bandolier, one touchscreen cellular phone, and assorted war materiel and ammunitions.”
A mistaken identity that led to a “collateral damage,” was how Professor Octavio Dinampo, who teaches at the Mindanao State University – Sulu in Patikul town, described what happened Friday.
“There are two things here,” Dinampo told MindaNews in a text message. “First, there was a legitimate encounter between the Army’s Scout Rangers and the groups of Amir Raddulan Sahirun, sub-leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan and Idang Susukan (of the Abu Sayyaf), resulting to the wounding of five soldiers. Two, the relatives of the seven victims claimed they were actually farm owners who asked the permission of the (military) commanding officer to harvest some fruits.”
“So most probably they were chanced upon by the operating scout rangers and mistaken for ASGs,” Dinampo said.
Dinampo noted that one of the victims was identified as a student of Jallao National High School.
He said what happened was more of “collateral damages than massacre, for being there at the wrong place and time.”
Who is accountable?
Suara Bangsamoro’s Aba said the AFP “should be held accountable for this crime.”
“This is not the first time that the AFP committed an atrocity against civilians while parading the victims as Abu Sayyaf bandits,” he said.
He recalled that in 2005, a family was massacred in Maimbung, Sulu that prompted then Moro National Liberation Front leader Ustadz Habier Malik to “retaliate against the AFP in defense of their communities.”
Aba was likely referring to what has become known as “Ipil Massacre” of eight persons — seven civilians including two children and two teenagers — and an Army soldier on vacation from his post in Cotabato City, in the coastal village of Ipil in Maimbung, Sulu on February 4, 2008.
In late February 2008, the Westmincom’s Judge Advocate General’s Office absolved the suspects – soldiers belonging to the Army’s Light Reaction Company and Navy Special Warfare Group – claiming it was a “legitimate encounter with the Abu Sayyaf.”
Suara Bangsamoro called on the Commission on Human Rights to investigate what happened in Patikul “and the scores of human rights violations reported by Moro communities in the course of the AFP’s anti-terror operations and martial law in Mindanao.”
It said President Rodrigo Duterte’s “all-out war policy is killing more and more of our Moro brothers and sisters.”
“We are enraged that to appease his Filipino soldiers, he would sacrifice the lives of Moro people by exonerating the perpetrators of the massacre and branding the victims as terrorists,” Suara Bangsamoro said as it held Duterte “responsible for the various human rights violations committed by the military against the Moro people.”
Duterte declared a “state of national emergency owing to lawless violence in Mindanao” on September 4, 2016, two days after the bombing at the Roxas night market in Davao City that left 14 persons dead and 70 others injured. One of the 70, a pregnant woman, died a few days later.
Duterte placed the entire Mindanao — composed of 27 provinces and 33 cities — under martial law on May 23, 2017, Day 1 of the Marawi Siege.
Martial law, supposedly only for 60 days, has been extended twice — until December 31, 2017 and until December 31, 2018, if not extended further. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)