Villagers flee fighting in southern Philippines

Military have been conducting operations against communist guerrillas in Surigao del Sur province
Villagers flee fighting in southern Philippines

Tribal people from the village of Diatagon in the southern Philippine town of Lianga leave their communities in July 2018 for fear of being caught in the crossfire between government and rebel forces. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Tribal people in the southern Philippine village of Diatagon in Surigao del Sur province have fled their communities in the wake of military operations against communist guerrillas in the area this week.

The villagers claimed they could not work on their farms because of continuous artillery bombardment on the outskirts of the village.

Saree Campos, spokesman for tribal organization Mapasu, told that the entry of food into the village was restricted at military checkpoints.

Maj. Rodolfo Cordero Jr., spokesman for the Army’s 401st Infantry Division, confirmed the reported evacuation but denied there was a food blockade.

"We are set to hold meetings [with villagers and local officials] to address this latest problem," said Cordero. "We don’t know the reason why they evacuated," he added.

The military official said air and ground bombardments were launched in November following the abduction of 14 government-backed militia and two soldiers by the guerrillas.

"Why are they evacuating now? Clearly the evacuation is again for propaganda purposes," said Cordero.

He said social workers were already sent to where the villagers sought shelter.

On Jan. 23, opposition legislators Antonio Tinio and France Castro issued a statement condemning the series of bombings around the tribal villages.

"We strongly condemn the continuing harassment and state terrorism that target one of the most vulnerable sectors in our society under the guise of martial law in Mindanao," read the statement.

The non-government Save Our Schools Network has reported the "series of bombings and harassment" by the military since Dec. 31 in several tribal communities in Diatagon.

The group said that as of Jan. 21, there were already 55 families, composed of 300 individuals, evacuated to another village.

Among the evacuees are 61 tribal students and four volunteer teachers at the Manluy-a Community Learning Center, an alternative learning center run by the Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur province.

The displacement of the tribal people of Diatagon started in September 2015 when three of their leaders were killed by government-backed militia, resulting in a massive evacuation.

After a year, the displaced people were allowed to go back to their homes.

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In July last year, at least 1,600 villagers from 15 communities fled again due to alleged military abuses.

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