By Jeoffrey Maitem
A human rights group on Monday questioned the accuracy of an official account about a police and military raid that killed six people last week in a southern Philippine town controlled by ex-rebels as part of an autonomous Muslim region.
Five suspects and a female bystander died during a gunbattle on Dec. 29 as the raid unfolded in Pikit, a town in Cotabato province, said Brig. Gen. Alexander Tagum, the regional police chief. In addition, three police were injured, the state-run Philippine News Agency reported.
However, the chairman of the Moro Consensus Group, an NGO monitoring the human rights of Muslims in the area, alleged the incident was not a legitimate counter-militancy operation but a “rubout.”
“According to residents in the village, the victims did not resist arrest and the motorcycles were not stolen but pawned with proper documents,” Drieza Lininding said in a statement, adding that the victims had “produced permits to show they were paying taxes.”
Lininding said he did not identify the residents who spoke out because they feared retribution, but noted they had personal knowledge of what happened.
“We condole with the families of victims. We condemn this barbaric act, and we demand justice,” he said, calling for an investigation by an independent rights body.
Recounting the incident, Tagum said authorities were about to serve an arrest warrant against Joel Manampan (also known as Maula Manampan) at his hideout when the suspects, identified as former guerrillas, began shooting. Manampan is included on the government’s list of most wanted persons.
“The suspect escaped taking advantage of the darkness, while five armed suspects were fatally shot,” Tagum told BenarNews on Monday. “During clearing operations, the operating unit discovered more than 400 units of assorted motorcycles hidden inside a makeshift warehouse and assorted improvised explosive device (IED) components.”
Lt. Col. Rommel Mundala, commander of the army’s 90th Infantry Battalion which supported police in the operation, said the firefight started when the suspects fired on the approaching government troops.
Those killed were taken to a local hospital “but were declared dead upon arrival by the attending physician,” Mundala said on Monday.
At the weekend, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the former separatist group that controls the autonomous region under a 2014 peace agreement with Manila, identified the five slain suspects as ex-MILF guerrillas.
The woman was identified as Arbaya Dalid, 31, a mother of three. Authorities did not say if she was related to Manampan’s group.
MILF: Operation ‘failed to adhere’
In a statement on Dec. 31, the MILF said the operation appeared to be “legitimate, but it failed to adhere to the Ceasefire Protocols of the Peace Process,” according to its Ad Hoc Joint Action Group that monitors violations of a truce under the peace deal.
The village where the incident occurred is one of the 63 under the jurisdiction of the MILF-led regional government. Under agreed protocols, the Philippine police and military must coordinate any operation with local leaders first.
Members of the ad hoc group retrieved the bodies and “pacified the tension” in the village, the MILF statement said.
Military and police operations in MILF-controlled areas have been a sore point in relations between both sides.
In January 2015, 44 police commandos were killed during a firefight with MILF forces when they entered a rebel-held territory in a raid to neutralize a Malaysian terrorist.
While police killed the terror suspect, Zulkifli bin Hir (also known as Marwan), the commandos were killed in the shootout with MILF members who were not aware of the operation.