A Catholic priest in the southern Philippines called for peace talks between the government and the communist insurgents following the death of several civilians in the hands of the military and the rebels.
Father Raymond Montero Ambray, social action ministry consultant of the Diocese of Tandag, said civilian casualties “could have been avoided if both parties only seek genuine and lasting peace.”
“The government and the rebels must reconsider going back to the negotiating table,” said the priest, adding that “precious lives of innocent civilians are being sacrificed and it is definitely unacceptable.”
On June 15, three indigenous people, including a 12-year-old girl, were killed by the soldiers in the village of Diatagon in Lianga town, Surigao del Sur province.
Human rights group Karapatan reported the death of Willy Rodriguez, Lenie Rivas, and 12-year-old Angel Rivas, in the hands of the military. The victims were reportedly harvesting abaca when soldiers opened fire.
The Philippine Army claimed that the victims were members of the communist-led New People’s Army who were “foraging for food” in the village.
Lt. Col. Benedict Harvey Gernale, commander of the Army’s 3rd Special Forces Battalion, said an intense armed encounter that lasted for more than 10 minutes resulted in the death of the three alleged rebels.
Karapatan, however, debunked the military claims, saying that the victims were ordinary farmers. Villagers told the human rights group that the victims even asked the soldiers’ permission before going to the farm.
Renato Reyes, secretary general of the group leftist New People’s Alliance, said the Philippine Army “is spinning an unbelievable tale of alleged armed encounters.”
He condemned the state forces for portraying a 12-year-old tribal student as a “child warrior” to justify the atrocity.
“Civilians are being targeted, murdered, and then presented as [rebel] combatants,” said Reyes.
“These actions fit the description of the [International Criminal Court] special prosecutor on the murderous character of the [present administration],” he added.
The Student Christian Movement of the Philippines immediately called for an independent investigation into what the group described as a “massacre.”
Kej Andres, spokesperson of the youth group, said the people of Lianga town “have been subjected to excessive and intensified” military operations because of business interests.
The province of Surigao del Sur is host to the world’s largest reserve of coal.
The killing of the three indigenous people in Mindanao happened a few days after two civilians in Masbate province died after a land mine planted by the rebels exploded.