SHARIFF AGUAK, Maguindanao: Some 400 residents of upland Barangay Camutan in Antipas, North Cotabato were used as human shields by the New People’s Army (NPA) rebels on Thursday, a local government official said.
The rebels held the civilians hostage when fighting erupted between them and government forces in this remote village close to mountain ranges in North Cotabato village. There is a heavy NPA presence in Camutan.
The Department of Education and school officials immediately closed all schools and evacuated the schoolchildren to safer areas.
Antipas Mayor Egidio Cadungon, chairman of the municipal peace and order council, confirmed the occupation of Barangay Camutan by armed NPA rebels who looted houses, collected money from the villagers and took their farm animals.
Supt. Romeo Galgo, Police Regional Office-12 spokesman said about 300 fully armed NPA rebels stormed Camutan at around 4:00 a.m. on Thursday, preventing residents from leaving in an apparent attempt to use them as human shields against pursuing government forces.
“The village of Camutan has about 133 households, only 47 managed to escape and are now staying at an evacuation center in Antipas,” Galgo added.
Galgo said the fighting erupted at 7:15 p.m. when joint elements of the 39th Infantry Battalion, members of the Antipas Philippine National Police (PNP) and North Cotabato PNP converged in Camutan.
“Tension was still high as of 9 p.m. since the NPAs remained in Sitio Malapangi and other rebels also occupied the sub-villages of Matias and Gumay,” he said.
Chief Insp. Rolando Dillera, Antipas town police chief, said residents of the nearby villages of Agod and Malire immediately fled when they saw the rebels had occupied Sitio Malapangi at 6 a.m.
Classes in the affected villages were suspended.
Army and police intelligence units are now validating reports that the NPAs are still holding 70 residents as captives, to be used as “human shields” if the military will drive them away.
The first to evacuate right after the NPAs arrived in Barangay Camutan were 47 families driven away at gunpoint after they were robbed of their money and personal belongings such as wristwatches, farm tools, clothes and the livestock in their yards. The rebels also ransacked and took goods from sari-sari stores abandoned by their owners.
Cadungon said the attack also caused panic in the neighboring villages.
The mayor said relief workers could not reach trapped families in Barangay Camutan as there was no clearance from the military, adding that efforts by the local government are underway to negotiate with the rebels to allow the safe release of civilians.
Meanwhile, a contingent of Philippine Marines prevented the NPA from robbing villagers of Kalamansig town in Sultan Kudarat of money and palay (unmilled rice) harvests, after they attacked the communist rebels last week.
Earlier, a young serviceman, Private Albino Bahian 3rd of the 2nd Marine Battalion, was killed in the bloody March 17 incident that also left nine of his fellow Marines wounded.
They were attacked by the NPA guerrillas while on their way to Sitio Tinagdagan in Barangay Hinalaan in Kalamansig to validate the reported presence of gunmen collecting “protection money” from residents.
Sources from the tribal elders, said the NPAs, led by Tirso Sakudal, actually planned to rob local residents of food and other valuables but failed when the Marines arrived that started the fire fight.
Sakudal, also known as “Mac-Mac,” is wanted for heinous offenses including cattle theft, extortion and large-scale propagation of marijuana plants. He is a senior leader in the NPA’s Guerilla Front 73.
Local officials in the hinterland towns of Sultan Kudarat confirmed that six NPAs were killed when the Marines returned fire while three more were wounded in the ensuing firefight and died while being carried away from the crime scene by their companions.
Major Gen. Carlito Galvez, Jr., commanding general of the Zamboanga City-based Western Mindanao Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said the Marines were sent to Barangay Hinalaan only to validate reports that gunmen were seen encircling farming enclaves there.
Kalamansig and nearby seaside towns in Sultan Kudarat are more known as bastions of the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, where the NPA’s presence was never been felt until Friday’s incident that caused panic among local residents.
Kalamansig Mayor Ronan Eugene Garcia said the NPA has lately been trying to expand its operations in certain highland villages in the municipality populated by indigenous tribal folks.
Garcia on Friday said he has been receiving feedback that the NPAs who ambushed the Marines were out to collect money from farmers and divest them of rice and corn grains in their barns.