The National Democratic Front-Eastern Visayas today condemned the massacre of a prominent botanist and his two assistants last Nov. 15, and pinned responsibility on the 19th IB, calling for its expulsion from the region for committing mass killings and other human rights violations for so many years.
“The NDF-EV condoles with the families and friends of University of the Philippines professor Dr. Leonardo Co and his assistants, Sofronio Cortez and Julius Borromeo, who were indiscriminately fired upon and killed by 19th IB elements while doing fieldwork in Kananga, Leyte,” said Fr. Santiago Salas, NDF-EV spokesperson. “We join the call for justice for Dr. Co and his assistants, as well as for survivors Policarpio Batute and Ronino Gibe, and the many other victims of the 19th IB.
The NDF-EV does not believe that an encounter occurred between the New People’s Army and the 19th IB elements and that Dr. Co’s group was caught in the crossfire. It is highly improbable for Dr. Co and his companions to accidentally stray near an NPA camp or an NPA unit on maneuvers and suddenly find themselves in a crossfire. The NPA camps are well-hidden and highly secure areas inaccessible to most, and an NPA unit on maneuvers also stays away from civilians to maintain secrecy and to avoid endangering them.
Rather, it is the NDF-EV’s belief that Dr. Co’s group was mistaken for an NPA unit by the 19th IB elements led by Lt. Ronald Ocheamar, who attacked based on a flimsy intelligence report, and who furthermore violated the rules of engagement by indiscriminately firing without verifying their targets. We trust that the NPA’s Mt. Amandewin Command in Leyte is investigating this grave incident to clarify what really happened and to help attain justice for the victims.”
Fr. Salas also said that the onus is on the 19th IB, dubbing it the “Massacre Battalion” for its involvement in at least three previous massacres and other rights violations.
“If confirmed, the killing of the UP professor and his assistants will be the second massacre in Kananga alone by the 19th IB. To remember, the first Kananga massacre happened on April 16, 2003, with the mass torture and massacre of nine civilians — including a pregnant woman and four minors. The victims were doused with boiling water before being shot in the head at close range. Moreover, on Nov. 21 will be the commemoration of another 19th IB massacre, this time of ten peasants in Palo, Leyte in 2005 who were peacefully working when attacked.
Meanwhile, the earliest documented massacre by the 19th IB involved the killing of the Nuguit family — three children, the father, and the mother who was also pregnant — whose house was strafed in Palapag, Northern Samar on January 28, 1999. The 19th IB is also accused of other rights violations, such as the extrajudicial executions under Oplan Bantay Laya that victimized progressive activists, as well as CPP-NPA cadres Bibiano Rentillosa and Antonio Ramos, who were killed after being captured alive in 2006 and 2007, respectively.”
The NDF-EV spokesperson called on the Aquino government not to whitewash but to swiftly investigate the incident and render justice to the victims, and to take steps to end the brutal militarization of Eastern Visayas that led to the massacre.
“We call on Justice Secretary Leila de Lima as well as the human rights committees in the Senate and Congress to probe and punish the responsible for this latest atrocity by the 19th IB as well as previous ones, so justice can finally be rendered to the battalion’s various victims. The survivors and potential witnesses Policarpio Batute and Ronino Gibe must also be protected from retaliation and whitewash attempts by the 8th Infantry Division.
“This latest atrocity should also be a wake-up call to the Aquino government to end Oplan Bantay Laya now and to desist from crafting more military campaigns that mostly harm civilians. Eastern Visayas is in the throes of massive militarization because it is a priority area for the government campaign against the NPA. But as this new Kananga massacre shows, the government campaign is turning into senseless violence against the people because trigger-happy soldiers have been enjoying impunity for too long, despite so many complaints over human rights violations.”
Fr. Salas also called on the peace negotiating panels of the Aquino government and the NDFP to take the Kananga incident as a challenge to persevere with the peace talks. “The senseless deaths of Dr. Leonardo Co and his two assistants epitomize the sufferings of innocent civilians and the crying need for peace and justice, in the face of government offensives that wantonly violate human rights and international humanitarian law. The NDF-EV hopes that the recent tragedy will spur the Aquino government into showing its political will for negotiations, rather than pursuing the militarist and fascist approach of Oplan Bantay Laya over the past decade.”