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Philippine bishop calls on armed groups to leave tribal areas

Bishop Valentin Dimoc seeks formation of 'peace zones' to prevent people fleeing clashes
Philippine bishop calls on armed groups to leave tribal areas

Communist rebels of the New People’s Army are seen in this July 2017 file photo. (Photo: Noel Celis/AFP)

Published: March 03, 2020 07:59 AM GMT
Updated: March 04, 2020 04:58 AM GMT

A Philippine church official has issued an appeal calling for the immediate withdrawal of all armed groups from tribal communities and lands following a recent military incursion.

Bishop Valentin Dimoc of the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples called for all state and non-state forces to leave tribal communities following reports that more than 90 tribal families were forced to flee their southern Philippine village in Surigao del Sur province on Feb. 29.

The people fled Diatagon, a village in the town of Lianga, after government troops conducted sweeps against communist rebels, human rights group Karapatan said in a statement.

It said a five-year-old infant was one of three people wounded when troops fired at houses in the village.

The military, however, accused the rebels of firing on civilians to get them to flee.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Ezra Balagtey said the rebels were trying to prevent “the establishment of a government school for tribal children.”

He said it was quite common for the rebels and their sympathizers to accuse the military of tactics that force people to flee their homes. They do it to “pressure us to pull out our troops,” he said

The latest incident prompted Bishop Dimoc of Bontoc Lagawe to appeal to the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples to prohibit armed groups from entering tribal areas by declaring them “peace zones.”

By doing this we can prevent displacement, violence and bloodshed that put people in a constant state of fear, he said.

Church leaders have upped their calls in recent months for the government and rebels to resume stalled peace talks to end a decades-old insurgency.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called off the talks in November 2017 after accusing the rebels of breaking ceasefire agreements.

On Feb. 29, exiled communist leader Jose Maria Sison said the communists remained open to resuming negotiations but were against “localized talks” proposed by the Philippine government. He suggested church figures would make better mediators than politicians.

Last week three Catholic bishops —  Bishop Emmanuel Trance of Catarman, Bishop Isabelo Abarquez of Calbayog and Bishop Crispin Vasquez Borongan in Eastern Samar — were recommended by authorities in Samar in the central Philippines to lead such negotiations.

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