1,000 evacuate in North Negros following encounters, airstrikes

The evacuees in Toboso.* Photo courtesy of Councilor Richard Jaojoco

Close to 1,000 residents of Escalante City and Toboso town in northern Negros Occidental have evacuated following a series of encounters between 79th Infantry Battalion soldiers and New People’s Army (NPA) rebels and airstrikes Thursday night.

Two Augusta 109 attack helicopters at 7 p.m. Thursday conducted airstrikes that lasted for about 45 minutes at Sitio Mansulao, Barangay Pinapugasan, Escalante City, Lt. Col. J-Jay Javines, spokesperson of the Army’s 3rd Division, said.

Soldiers onboard the attack helicopters fired rockets and machine guns at a mountainous and thickly vegetated area, which is far from communities, he said.

The fleeing rebels were located at a vantage point in the target area and had strong firepower making it too risky for government soldiers to attack them by land, so air assets were called in to hasten the accomplishment of the mission, Javines said.

He said close to 500 residents from barangays Pinapugasan and Binaguiohan in Escalante had evacuated.

Councilor Richard Jaojoco said 521 residents of Barangay San Isidro, Toboso, had also evacuated.

Javines said the Army will conduct an assessment, and if the area has been cleared of the armed rebels the local government officials will be informed that the evacuees can go home

Three rebels were killed and three government soldiers and a CAFGU Active Auxiliary were slightly wounded during the clashes in Sitio Mansulao, Barangay Pinapugasan on Wednesday, Javines said.

There were no government soldiers killed contrary to fake news being circulated by some persons, he said.

On Friday there were no more armed clashes, but the Army was conducting clearing operations, he said.

Human Rights Advocates Negros (HRAN), in a statement Thursday, expressed deep concern about the alleged indiscriminate attacks on “farming communities” that led to mass evacuations.

“Local human rights defenders from Escalante City report that these attacks, involving helicopters and artillery cannons, are causing significant disruptions. A circulating online video confirms the use of the newly purchased T129 attack helicopters, as acknowledged by army officials,” HRAN said.

“Such indiscriminate attacks are strictly prohibited under international law, particularly Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions. These attacks fail to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and any injuries or deaths among civilians are considered collateral damage,” it claimed.

The declaration of stable peace and order in Negros Occidental by the 3rd ID appears hollow, as armed skirmishes persist in the countryside. The army’s deployment of two brigades against so-called “remnants of NPA” in Negros contradicts this claim, it added.

The NPA’s Apolinario Gatmaitan Command condemned what it said were a morning bombing and evening airstrike conducted by the 79th IB.

Javines said only an evening airstrike took place.

The Escalante City and Toboso mayors on Thursday ordered the suspension of classes amid the ongoing armed clashes between the Army and rebel forces.

Mayor Melecio Yap suspended classes at elementary, junior and senior high schools in barangays Libertad, Pinapugasan, Binaguiohan, Paitan, Dian.-ay, Magsaysay, Malasibog and Tamlang effective Friday, until further notice.

Mayor Madonnah Jaojoco also issued an executive order suspending classes at all levels in Toboso starting Friday until further notice.

There is a need to ensure the safety of the students as well school personnel amid the ongoing encounters, she said. *

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