Army denies “hostage-taking” incident in Zamboanga del Sur

A February 20, 2012 press release from the Armed Forces of the Philippines

Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City—The Army has denied allegations that its troops have held 10 people, including some journalists, in a hinterland village in Bayug town, Zamboanga del Sur, a military report said.

“We categorically deny the report that our soldiers and paramilitary forces have held those people hostage. Their assumption that the soldiers intentionally blocked the road with mud and debris was totally wrong. They were stranded in a landslide which barred any vehicles from entering the villages in the interior,” said Major Harold Cabunoc, the Army Spokesperson.

Cabunoc said that the group of media men on board several motorcycles was briefly stopped at an inter-agency checkpoint in Guinoman village at around 10:30 p.m., Feb 19. The media men were supposed to cover the eviction of a group of small-scale miners, which lost a court battle against a Canadian firm TVI-RD.

“It is part of our SOP to stop the vehicles to know the people who pass especially that some of our soldiers were held hostage in that area on Dec 3, 2011. The checkpoint is also manned by DENR personnel who are tasked to thwart illegal logging in the area. It is not our policy to thwart the movement of media personnel who cover important events in our AOR,” he added.

After a brief conversation, Cabunoc said, “the group were allowed to proceed to their destination but they were blocked by huge pile of mud and soil along the road in Sitio Malagak, Guinoman village”.

Frustrated about the situation, two of their companions (Lito Pedrano and Jong Cadion) assumed that the military forces in the area intentionally blocked their path to ‘hold them hostage’. Their fear was aggravated upon seeing that “there were backhoes in the area,” reminding them of an infamous massacre in Central Mindanao.

“Held hostage”

In a text message that they circulated among their media friends, Pedrano and Cadion desperately asked for help from their perceived “hostage takers,” the paramilitary forces (CAFGU).

We need help dahil nagiging hostage kami ngayun sa mga SCAA (Special CAFGU) at ng Canadian Mining na TVI-RD spagkat hindi na kami pinayagang makababa. Kasama namin ngayon ang mga local media at human righs defender dito sa Zamboanga del Sur. Totoo SCAA deploy and may malaking hinukay ang kanilang backhoe like sa Ampatuan, pls help,” the circulated text message sent by Lito Pedrano said, which was later aired by a local radio station and an online magazine.

In a report sent by Cpt. Albert Caber of the 1st Infantry Division Public Affairs Office, the military authorities in the area said that the backhoe was earlier sent by the mining company to clear the portion of the road which was blocked by mud.

The clearing operations by the Canadian mining company (TVI-RD) had already started prior to the arrival of the media men.

Caber was also surprised why the group insisted to use that route when it was too risky due to its bad condition and the constant soil erosion.

“They should have used the Balabag-Bayug road instead. It is much safer and there were no landslides along that route. I’m really wondering why they wanted to pass through that road when there is a better option,” said Caber.

Lt. Col Nasser Pendatun, the Commander of the 53rd Infantry Battalion which administers the Special CAFGU, immediately proceeded to the area to assist the ‘stranded’ mediamen.

He met two of them, Michael Navarro and Efren Suferal. The other 8 companions have already headed home as of 3:00 p.m., February 20 (Monday).

“Navarro and Suferal said that they were never approached by any military men in the landslide scene. They were also surprised that an alarming text message was already circulated, telling that they were all held hostage by the CAFGU personnel,” said Pendatun, adding that, “all of the mediamen have finally gone home as of 5:00 p.m. today”.

The military has maintained that the soldiers have done nothing wrong in this reported incident. “I hope that the truth will prevail regarding this issue. We will continue performing our mandates to serve our people in this area,” said Caber.

afp.gov.ph