Massacre or Encounter? Surigao Bishop to join probe team on killing of 3 Lumads, including 12-year old girl

CAGAYAN DE ORO (MindaNews / 17 June) – Bishop Raul Dael of the Diocese of Tandag in Surigao del Sur will join a provincial investigation team on Friday to look into the June 15 killing of three Lumad farmers, including a 12-year old girl in what the military claimed was an encounter with the New People’s Army (NPA) but what human rights groups decried as a massacre.

Fr. Raymond Montero Ambray, consultant of the Social Action Center of the Diocese of Tandag told MindaNews that Bishop Dael and he will join a provincial probe team on Friday, June 18, to investigate the killing in Sitio New Decoy, Barangay Diatagon in Lianga. Ambray said the probe team was initiated by the provincial government.

Bishop Raul Bautista Dael (center) with Archbishops Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro (right) and Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle (left). MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

In a statement, the Sabokahan IP women, a grassroots women organization based in Davao, said the three fatalities were Lumad farmers who were out harvesting abaca when they were allegedly “brutally killed and raped” by the soldiers, an allegation that Brig. Gen. Allan Hambala, commander of the Army’s 401st Infantry Brigade, denied.

Hambala claimed that thick jungle foliage in Sitio New Decoy, Barangay Diatagon in Lianga prevented Army soldiers from seeing a 12-year old girl among the NPA during the encounter.

He told MindaNews in a telephone interview that the soldiers saw an armed man firing a gun at them, prompting the 12-man Special Forces team to retaliate.

“Once the firing started, it was all go. The terrain was covered with thick jungle foliage,” he said, adding the encounter at a jungle trail beside an old logging road lasted for ten minutes.

It was while searching the area after the shootout when the soldiers found the dead minor, he said.

Hambala said the bodies were brought down to Diatagon, Lianga town where they were autopsied by a PNP SOCO team.

The military identified the victims as Lenie Perez Rivas, 38 years old; and Willy Salinas Rodriguez, 20 years old, both members of the Manobo tribe.

Hambala withheld the name of the slain minor. But Sabokahan IP women and Karapatan named the 12-year-old as a student of the Lumad school Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur (TRIFPSS).

Harvesting abaca

They said the elder Rivas and Rodriguez were members of the grassroots organization Malahutayong Pakigbisog alang sa Sumusunod (MAPASU).

The Sabokahan IP women alleged that the three Lumads were  farmers who were harvesting abaca.

In a statement, the Save Our Schools (SOS) said the three victims were cousins. It said Lenie Rivas was 21 and Rodriguez was their cousin.  The elder Rivas and the 12-year old were sisters.

The SOS said the victims’ aunt was informed by witnesses that the victims, “with three other young farmers, took a break from harvesting or stripping abaca, went down to the poblacion intending to buy rice when they came across the military who without warning opened fire on them, killing the three while the other three ran for their safety.”

It said the families of the victims learned about the incident at around 10 p.m. “after soldiers presented to them the lifeless body of Angel, wrapped in plastic and tape. Soldiers said they were pursuing a New People’s Army fighter and a gunfight ensued.”  The bodies of the elder Rivas and Rodriguez were allegedly found in a separate location, the SOS said.

Hambala welcomed the probe team, particularly the presence of the Bishop of Tandag.  “We welcome the fact finding mission so we can clear our name against these allegations,” he said.

He insisted that the June 15 encounter was “legitimate” and that the soldiers fought with members of the NPA, the two older fatalities allegedly belonging to the North Eastern Mindanao Regional Committee.

Hambala said the soldiers found an AK-47 rifle, two caliber .45 pistols, backpacks, ammunition and two anti-personnel mines with detonating cord and electrical wire attached to a switch around the three dead bodies.

Prior to the June 15 encounter, Hambala said the Special Forces team figured in another encounter with 20 NPA rebels in Sitio Tibog, Mabuhay, Prosperidad, Agusan del Sur on June 14.

Hambala said the soldiers captured a 15-year-old Manobo minor who told them of the presence of another rebel group in nearby Sitio New Decoy.  (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)