Leyte ‘crossfire’ survivor: I did not hear exchange of gunfire*
By Elvie Roa, Joey A. Gabieta
First Posted 20:36:00 11/17/2010
ORMOC CITY, Philippines—(UPDATE) The killing of renowned Filipino botanist Leonardo Co and two others in a forested area in Kananga, Leyte might have been a case of mistaken identity.
Policarpio Balute, a farmer who served as one of the guides of Co as he was gathering specimen seedlings of endangered native trees, indicated that there was no exchange of gunfire when the shooting began in a forested area in Upper Mahiao, Barangay Lim-ao, Kananga at noon Monday.
Balute, 33, said he did not hear any answering volley of shots coming from different directions just as the military maintained that the three were killed in crossfire between government troops and communist rebels.
“I only heard a continued burst of gunfire. There was no answering gunfire. None. That was what I heard, about 15 minutes of gun fire,” Balute, a member of the Tongonan Farmers Association, told local reporters.
Flimsy intelligence report
The National Democratic Front-Eastern Visayas said Co and his two aides were victims of an erroneous military operation.
The five-member team, working for the Energy Development Corporation biodiversity project in Leyte, was “mistaken for an NPA (New People's Army) unit by the 19th IB elements led by Lieutenant Ronald Ocheamar, who attacked based on a flimsy intelligence report,” NDF-EV spokesman Santiago Salas.
Salas, in an emailed statement, said that with the death of Co and his aides the military “violated the rules of engagement by indiscriminately firing without verifying their targets.”
The statement of the rebel priest was, however, silent on the military’s claim that a group of communist guerillas were in the area at that time Co, forest guard Sofronio Cortez, and farmer Julius Borromeo were supposedly killed in crossfire.
Balute and Roniño Gibe, a contractual forester with the EDC's corporate responsibility department, were unharmed but Gibe was in a state of shock and brought to the Ormoc Sugarcane Planters Association hospital.
On hearing the gunfire, Balute said he dropped to the ground and ran away after calling on his companions to flee.
During his frantic escape, Balute said he even tumbled down the hilly portion of the forest.
When he looked behind, Balute said he saw that his companions had failed to leave but he continued to run until he reached the EDC service vehicle, which was about to be driven away by the driver who got scared of the volley of gunfire.
A source, who asked not to be named, had told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that Co sustained gunshot wounds in the back. The footage of local television station Channel 14 confirmed this and showed that the front of Co's body did not bear any bullet holes or blood stain.
‘Please believe my men’
On Wednesday, Lieutenant Colonel Federico Tutaan, commanding officer of 19th IB which conducted the operation, denied having said that the military fired the first shot.
When asked if an encounter really took place, Tutaan said: “I plead you to please believe my men.”
“They (soldiers) are being blamed (for the deaths of the three civilians). My men were not trained to kill civilians,” he said.
In a press conference in Ormoc City Tuesday, Tutaan narrated to reporters how the shooting started.
“So what happened was they (the soldiers) prepared here. They saw, they sensed the enemy. There was a shot and so the shooting started,” he said.
But even Tutaan, who was showing a sketch of the area while explaining to the press what happened, gave statements that indicated the military could be considering the deaths a case of mistaken identity.
He said that before the shooting started, the soldiers saw a person wearing black and holding an M-16 Armalite rifle, prompting the soldiers to go into a combat formation.
“Immediately, they (NPA members) were able to run. It is just unfortunate that the next area, na may mga tao, was... 'pare meron pa doon. Di lang ‘yan ‘yong kalaban. May kalaban diyan, meron pa doon.' (It is just unfortunate that the next area where there were people... ‘brod, there are people there. There are enemies there.’) That was the unfortunate part because that group was the group of the EDC because the NPA guerrillas were able to maneuver and run,” Tutaan said.
He added that one of the soldiers was confident that he hit one of the suspected communist rebels.
Volley of gunfire
However, Tutaan would not say if the bullets that hit Co and his two companions came from the soldiers' firearms.
“There was a volume of fire. The bullets ricocheted in different directions,” he said.
In a press conference in Tacloban City Wednesday afternoon, Tutaan said it would be unfair to put the blame on the government troops as the autopsy conducted by a medical team from the provincial Philippine National Police had yet to be released.
He added that last Friday, the military received an intelligence report that NPA members were planning to attack the EDC complex, prompting them to go on “heightened alert and always on a combat mode.”
Tutaan said the military would not issue an apology to the families of Co and his project co-workers, saying doing so would be an admission of guilt.
Tutaan said the Army soldiers were on a legitimate military operation, running after members of the NPA who were said to be in the area.
He dismissed reports that there was no actual encounter and that the three were mistaken for rebels, adding that the soldiers were unaware there were civilians in the area.
Tutaan added that the soldiers, who were positioned at a high ground and were 30 meters away from the location of Co and his companions, were the ones who brought their bodies to a safe ground. According to Tutaan, two of the victims were seriously wounded and later expired but he could not say if one of them was Co.
“Two identified themselves to be employees of the EDC. The other one was already dead when my men approached them,” he said.
Tutaan said Major General Mario Chan, commanding general of the 8th Infantry Division, has expressed his support for his men.
“(All) he told me was to make an honest-to-goodness report,” he said.
He added that they would welcome any investigation into the incident as he expressed sadness over the deaths of Co and his aides.
The NDF-EV, however, described the deaths of the three as a “massacre.”
Salas called on Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Congress to initiate a probe on the deaths.
So far, the police, military and the EDC have not provided the victims’ families with copies of the autopsy report, Darwin Flores, brother-in-law of Co, said.
When asked if the family would want to have another autopsy on Co, Flores said that the slain botanist’s wife Glenda and his sister were not inclined to ask for it.
The EDC had hired Co as a consultant in a research project on tree biodiversity in the area, which involved collecting seedling specimens of wild trees for replanting, Paete explained.
According to the EDC website, the company is implementing the Binhi (Seeds) project, which focuses on prime endangered Philippine tree species, to bring back vanishing trees that are highly valued and those that are native to the Philippines.