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Mindanao villagers flee homes after killings of tribal leaders

Activists targeted by paramilitary groups

Joe Torres in Manila and Ben Serrano in Butuan City

Joe Torres in Manila and Ben Serrano in Butuan City

Published: September 02, 2015 11:04 AM GMT

Updated: September 02, 2015 04:56 PM GMT

Mindanao villagers flee homes after killings of tribal leaders

Benedictine Sister Theodora Bilocura says thousands of indigenous villagers have fled their homes in Mindanao following the killing of two community leaders and a school director. (Photo by Joe Torres)

Thousands of indigenous villagers have fled their homes in fear after the killing of two tribal leaders and a school director in the southern Philippine province of Surigao del Sur.

Benedictine Sister Theodora Bilocura, who works with indigenous communities in the province, said thousands began leaving Sept. 2 after the killings of the three prominent community members in the town of Lianga.

"The people fear for their lives," she said.

The nun said it was the fifth large evacuation in recent months, triggered by soldiers harassing indigenous villages suspected of helping communist rebels.

But the villagers are only guilty of opposing the entry of mining corporations on their ancestral lands in rural Mindanao, she added.

"This is not the first time that it happened," the nun pointed out. "They walked for hours in the middle of the night for fear of military attacks.”

Human rights groups accused members of an anti-communist paramilitary group of killing school director Emerico Samarca and tribal leaders Dionel Campos and Aurelio Sinzo on Sept. 1.

Campos’ nephew, Sari Campos, told ucanews.com that a school building and an office of an indigenous cooperative organization were also burned by members of the Mahagat-Bagani paramilitary group.

"They want us out of our communities so that the mining companies will be able to enter our lands," he said.

Police Director Narciso Verdadero of the Surigao del Sur provincial police office confirmed that about 2,000 indigenous villagers have sought shelter in the capital, Tandag city.

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He said authorities have identified the alleged perpetrators of the killings, adding that members of the Mahagat-Bagani paramilitary group were "likely" involved.

"We will see the result of the ongoing investigation. There are witnesses and the perpetrators were identified," Verdadero said, adding that members of the same paramilitary group are also suspected in the August killings of two other indigenous people from a neighboring village.

Indigenous leaders join church and human rights activists in a candle light protest in Manila Sept. 3 to call on the government to act on the killings of indigenous people in Mindanao. (Photo by Joe Torres)



For its part, the Philippine Army, which has been accused of supporting or tolerating various paramilitary groups in the region, issued a statement condemning the killings.

"We will support and participate in the conduct of a fact-finding mission and the ongoing police investigation to give justice to the victims," Maj. Gen. Oscar Lactao, commander of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, said in the statement.

However, advocates for local indigenous people have challenged the military to disarm and disband the paramilitary group.

"Armed [members of the group] walk freely in the villages of Surigao del Sur near military camps and army patrol bases," said Sister Emma Cupin of the Missionary Sisters of Mary, who works in remote villages in the province. "We condemn the failure of the government to protect our school buildings."

Church and rights organizations joined indigenous peoples' groups in Manila on Sept. 2 in condemning what they see as a "series of grave human rights violations" against Mindanao's indigenous communities.

Piya Malayao, secretary general of the indigenous peoples' advocacy group Katribu, said 13 tribal leaders have been killed and four cases of massacres in indigenous communities have happened in the past eight months. This has resulted in the displacement of some 4,000 indigenous families.

The Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment said the killings in Lianga brought the number of killings of environmental advocates to 49 since 2010.


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School head, tribal leaders murdered in Mindanao


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