RECOVERED. Government troops under the Army’s 3rd Special Forces Battalion recover high-power firearms, ammunition, and other war materials following an encounter with the communist New People’s Army on Monday (July 20, 2020) in Sitio Panukmuran, Barangay Diatagon, Lianga, Surigao del Sur. The Army condemned the NPA for using human shields as they withdrew from the encounter site. (Photo courtesy of 3SFBn)

BUTUAN CITY – The Philippine Army and the tribal leaders in the Surigao del Sur town of Lianga have condemned the communist New People’s Army (NPA) for using as a shield an entire community of Indigenous Peoples (IPs) following an encounter in Sitio Panukmuran, Barangay Diatagon on Monday.

Lt. Col. Joel Baybayan, the commander of 3SFBn, said the encounter was the result of a continuing security operation in response to the NPA’s threat to destroy the newly-constructed Department of Education (DepEd) IP school and harassed tribal communities in the area.

“There was a 10-minute encounter but NPA terrorists immediately fled and mixed with the IP community to evade government forces that caused alarm and chaos on civilians,” Baybayan said in a statement on Tuesday.

Baybayan said the NPA rebels involved in the clash belong to the “weakened” Guerrilla Front 19 of the rebels’ North Eastern Mindanao Regional Committee (NEMRC).

“Our troopers were forced to position in a distance as the IPs were in commotion when the Communist NPA Terrorists (CNTs) entered the community to shield (themselves from government forces). People were scared, especially the children,” Baybayan said.

Baybayan condemned the rebels for using the tribe members as human shield.

In a separate interview Tuesday, 1Lt. Krisjuper Andreo  Punsalan, 3SFBn civil-miitary operations officer, said at least 39 families in Sitio Panukmuran were forced to temporarily settle in nearby areas when the NPA rebels entered their community after the encounter.

“The families are now safe as the local government unit (LGU) of Lianga, together with the Indigenous People Mandatory Representative (IPMR) and the tribal chieftain of Lianga immediately assisted the families by providing them food and other basic needs,” Punsalan told the Philippine News Agency.

“We were not able to continue our pursuit operation after the firefight because of the danger considering that the CNTs were able to mix with the civilians who were also in chaos at that time,” Punsalan said.

He said the Army recovered from the encounter site several high-power firearms, ammunition, mobile phones, medical supplies, and other belongings of the rebels.

Punsalan said pursuit operation immediately resumed after the NPA rebels left the community and after determining that the civilians were already safe.

In the same statement, Hawudon Jumar Bucales, the tribal representative to the Lianga municipal council, lambasted the NPA for putting the lives of Manobo civilians in danger.

“We call on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR), the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), and International Committee on the Red Cross (ICRC) and other rights groups to condemn in the highest terms and take action against CNTs who use the IP community as human shields,” Bucales said.

He pointed out that for years, the NPA rebels have been infiltrating IP communities, exploiting tribesmen, and forcing them to join the communist movement.

“Unknown to the international arena and self-proclaimed rights advocates, communist NPA terrorists infiltrates the IP communities to force the tribe to become members of their underground mass organizations, politico-military structure and eventually, party members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and National Democratic Front (NDF) in order to sustain the NPA terrorists in the far-flung sitios,” Bucales said.

He also expressed hope on the passage on the Anti-Terror Act of 2020 would boost the government campaign to end terrorism and the local communist armed conflicts.

Bucales, together with Datu Ric Maca, the IPMR of San Miguel town, also condemned the NPA and their front organizations last week for “spreading lies” against the Army in Surigao del Sur.

The CPP-NPA is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. (PNA)