MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Church worried over increasing militarization of SK town

Published by MAC on 2006-04-22

Church worried over increasing militarization of SK town

By Allen V. Estabillo, MindaNews

22th April 2006

GENERAL SANTOS CITY - Catholic Church leaders have raised concerns over the increasing presence of government troops in several villages of Columbio, a town in Sultan Kudarat where an entire Army battalion is now permanently encamped.

Bishop Romulo Valles of the Diocese of Kidapawan said they have stepped up their monitoring against possible human rights violations committed by elements of the Army's 25 th Infantry Battalion that began entering Columbio late last year.

"We alerted our workers in the area to closely monitor the ongoing military activities, especially in the remote parts of the town," Valles said at a press conference Wednesday in Tampakan, South Cotabato.

He said the diocese has been cautious with the permanent presence of the army unit in Columbio, which reportedly has a long history of human rights violations during military operations.

Fr. Peter Geremia, director of the diocese's Tribal Filipino Program, told MindaNews that he personally doubts the motive of the deployment of the entire 25th IB in Columbio since the local government supposedly had no prior knowledge about it.

"The municipal government did not make any request for the deployment of an army battalion in the area," said the Italian priest, who spends considerable time in Columbio because of his continuing work with tribal communities in the area.

Geremia said 25th IB personnel, headed by Col. Cesar Idio, established their base in Columbio in early December last year.

He said the 25th IB has encamped at a former nursery of the Department of Agriculture in the poblacion and at a vacant site near a public elementary school in barangay dela Paz in Columbio. He said the unit's deployment in the area was reportedly set for a long term.

He said the diocese was officially informed about the troop movement when he attended a dialogue between local stakeholders and officials of the 25th IB on December 10, 2005 in Tulunan, Cotabato province.

He said Idio explained that the deployment of his unit in Columbio was ordered by his superiors along with a directive to launch an intensified campaign against New People's Army (NPA) members and sympathizers in the area.

The priest said the Army official also disclosed that their deployment was also in support to the ongoing and future development projects in Columbio.

He said that since December the military has launched a number of operations against alleged members of the NPA in at least six barangays of the town triggering evacuations in several remote villages of Columbio.

He said it is possible that the 25th IB was deployed in Columbio to provide protection to the Australian-owned mining firm Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI).

"Since the exploration activities in the area started in 1995, Columbio has become a regular scene of military operations. And now that SMI has started preparing for the actual mining operation, a full Army battalion is suddenly assigned in the area," he noted.

The Dioceses of Kidapawan, Marbel and Digos have been opposing the operations of SMI that has planned to launch a large-scale copper and gold mining project in the area by 2009.

SMI is currently exploring the copper and gold deposits along the tri-boundaries of Columbio, Tampakan in South Cotabato and Kiblawan in Davao del Sur. The company's operations are financed by the Melbourne-based Indophil Resources NL.

But Col. Franklin del Prado, spokesperson of the Sixth Infantry Division, played down the concerns raised by the Diocese of Kidapawan saying the deployment of the 25 th IB in Columbio was purely an operational matter.

"It was decided by the division G-3 or operations unit based on its assessment on the area's security situation. In the case of Columbio, the assignment of the 25 th IB was warranted by the presence of the NPA in the area," he told MindaNews in a telephone interview.

Del Prado stressed that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has the authority to deploy its troops anywhere in the country and that such decision does not require the consent of the local government units.

But he said they always make it a point to coordinate with the concerned LGUs when they deploy their troops in an area.

The 25th IB's assignment in Columbio was "not necessarily" to protect the interests of SMI but of the entire populace covered by the unit's operations, he added.

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