14 killed in joint military, police operations in Negros Oriental

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 31) — Fourteen people were killed and 16 were arrested in joint military and police operations in several towns and cities of Negros Oriental on Saturday, the province's police chief said Sunday.

Police Colonel Raul Tacaca said government forces served 36 search warrants to individuals in the City of Tanjay, and the municipalities of Canlaon, Manjuyod, Mabinay, Sta. Catalina and Siaton. The warrants were for violation of Republic Act 10951 or the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act.

The 14 dead were believed to be members of the New People's Army (NPA) and supporters, according to Regional Director 7 PBGen. Debold Senas.

Eight of the fatalities were from Canlaon City, four from the Manjuyod and two from Santa Catalina Negros Oriental.

A policeman also sustained injuries.

Authorities confiscated 51 assorted firearms and explosives.

The National Democratic Front (NDF) confirmed one of the slain victims, identified as Edgardo Avelino, was the leader of Hugpong Kusog Mag-uuma (HUKOM) under the left-wing organization Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), while the rest were civilians.

The KMP said two of their members were also arrested, namely Nestor Kadusale, a leader of KMP-Negros, and Azucena Garubat of Naghiusang Mag-uuma sa Panubigan (NAMAPA).

The NDF called for justice for the victims and called the police operation a display of abuse amid an ongoing "militarization" of the city due to the alarming presence of soldiers.

"Nananawagan ang NDF-Bikol sa lahat ng pwersang progresibo at demokratiko na makibahagi sa paglaban ng mamamayang Negrense sa sukdulang karahasan at pagsasamantala sa kanilang hanay," its statement said.

[Translation: The NDF-Bikol is calling for all progressive and democratic forces to take part in fighting alongside Negros residents against the abuse and harassment of their people.]

KABATAAN Party-list Sarah Elago said those killed were farmers targeted in operations against members of peasant and plantation groups "in the guise of 'anti-criminality.'"

"This horrendous massacre brings the death toll of farmers killed under the Duterte administration to 197. I am enraged, extremely heartbroken! We, in Kabataan, STRONGLY condemn this murderous rampage! We call for an independent probe into this grave matter," Elago said in a Facebook post.

The Northern Negros Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (NNAHRA) also condemned the killings.

"As in the first wave of Oplan Sauron, authorities justified the operations as an 'anti-criminality' drive against drug and 'loose firearms.' Right after, the police would allege that the victims were killed in a shoot-out with rebels and tag them as combatants and now, members of so-called 'sparrow units' of the NPA," the group said in a statement.

The NNAHRA added the police and military are "hard pressed to meet their quotas" in "ending the communist insurgency," as ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte under Executive Order 70. The order creates a national task force to end local communist armed conflict.

The killings happened a day after the NPA's 50th founding anniversary.

Duterte permanently ended talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in March. It first stopped the peace negotiations with the CPP-NPA in November 2017 after government and the communist rebels accused each other of violating imposed ceasefires.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said it has instructed its unit in Central Visays to look into the incident.

"At this point, our interest is finding out the truth behind a police operation, which authorities claim to be meant to serve warrants of arrest, but resulted [in] 14 deaths of farmers and a cop said to be injured," CHR spokesperson Jacqueline Ann de Guia said in a statement.

"Even claims of resisting arrest to justify fatalities need to be tried before courts to ensure that there are no lapses and ascertain if the circumstances really warrant the offense from the police, resulting the curtailment of life," De Guia added.

The National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW), meanwhile, condemned the incident and lamented the increasing military presence in the area.

"The brutal killing of farmers is brought about by intense militarization in the countryside," the group said in a statement.

"Until now, militarization is intensifying in the upland areas and city centers of North Negros.. This is the reason why the NFSW and the peasant sector are crying out and calling for justice for the victims of the killings perpetrated by the fascists and criminals in the police and military in Negros," it added.

The NFSW urged residents in the area “to unite, to foil and stop de facto martial law in Negros Island."