MANILA, Philippines - (UPDATE) One of the Philippines' top botanists was killed when he was allegedly caught in a crossfire between government troops and leftist rebels.
Leonardo L. Co was gathering seedlings of endangered trees in a forest in Leyte, when he was tragically caught in a crossfire during an encounter between the military and suspected communist rebels last Monday, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Co was killed together with Sofronio G. Cortez, a forest guard of the Energy Development Corporation (EDC), and Julius Borromeo, a local farmer who was the group's guide.
Co was in the area collecting specimens for a reforestation project for the Lopez-owned EDC, which hired him as consultant.
The rebels were suspected New People's Army (NPA) guerrillas, EDC spokesman Fernando Diaz de Rivera told AFP.
EDC operates power plants in Leyte.
Co was a botanist at the state-run University of the Philippines, said De Rivera.
He also said the military was informed of Co's group's trek to the area prior to the encounter.
The 5,000-member Maoist rebel group has been waging a decades-old armed campaign across much of the Philippines, including Leyte where Energy Development Corp., a listed company, operates power plants.
A Facebook page entitled Leonardo L. Co: In Memoriam was immediately put up by Co's friends.
It said that Co is an ethnobotanist and a plant taxonomist. He was also the President of the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society, Inc.
A five-petal flower Rafflesia Leonardi, believed to be the only one of its kind in the world and endemic to rainforest in Cagayan province, was named after Co.
The renowned botanist was the one who confirmed it as a new species of Rafflesia five months after the flower’s discovery last 2008 by a multi-sectoral group of environmental scientists.
A wake for Co will be held at Funeraria Paz on Araneta Avenue in Quezon City until Thursday, November 18. His remains will be brought to UP Diliman on Friday, November 19, for a tribute to be held in his onor.
Cremation is scheduled on Saturday.
The botanist's ashes will reportedly be scattered in Palanan, on one particular tree in UP Diliman, and the rest will be with the immediate family.
Police, military probes
The top military commander in the Visayas, Lt. Gen. Ralph Villanueva, meanwhile, said that the military and the police have already started investigations into the possible violation of military regulations meant to ensure the safety of civilians in the conduct of its operations.
Villanueva, Armed Forces’ Central Command (CentCom) chief, said the police investigation will determine whether the bullets that killed the civilians came from the soldiers of Army’s 19th Infantry Battalion (IB) or from the side of the 8 NPA rebels.
The military commander alleged that the Army soldiers were conducting security operations at the vicinity of the EDC compound in Kananga town when they clashed with the communist rebels.
“In one of the previous encounters, we recovered documents indicating imminent attack on that facility, we recovered sketches (of the EDC facility). We were conducting the operations to preempt that (rebel plan),” said Villanueva.
Villanueva said the EDC and the military immediately requested for a police investigation on who hit the civilians.
“As of now, we don’t know yet (who hit the civilians) but we are quite confident that its not our soldiers. As to who, we cannot yet definitely say at this time…We cannot say as of now but based on the statements of the soldiers, it’s very difficult for them (soldiers) to hit the civilians…They saw the NPAs and it’s the rebels (who were) targeted, not the civilians,” the CentCom chief said.
Villanueva said that soldiers involved in the incident will be made available for the police investigation.
Villanueva also disclosed that he has ordered Maj. Gen. Mario Chan, Army’s 8th Infantry Division commander, to conduct a parallel investigation. The 19th IB is under the 8th Infantry Division.
“I have directed him to conduct a parallel investigation because, really, we emphasize in our operations the safety of the civilians and apparently, the troops were not aware that there were civilians in the area,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Reynaldo Mapagu said that 19th IB commander Lt. Col. Federico Tutaan has already provided his report about the incident.
“That’s the report but we will investigate if there were lapses. If the involved troops have liability, then so be it, we will do the right or the necessary measures so that we can address the problem,” said Mapagu, Armed Forces’ Vice Chief of Staff.
NDF blames Army
The National Democratic Front - Eastern Visayas (NDF-EV), from a statement posted on the Web site of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), is also pushing for a probe into the incident.
Fr. Santiago Salas, NDF-EV spokesperson, said that he believes Army soldiers were responsible for the “massacre of Co and his 2 companions.”
“The NDF-EV does not believe that an encounter occurred between the New People's Army and the 19th IB elements, and that Dr. Co's group was caught in the crossfire. It is highly improbable for Dr. Co and his companions to accidentally stray near an NPA camp or an NPA unit on maneuvers and suddenly find themselves in a crossfire…It is the NDF-EV's belief that Dr. Co's group was mistaken for an NPA unit by the 19th IB elements led by Lt. Ronald Ocheamar, who attacked based on a flimsy intelligence report, and who furthermore violated the rules of engagement by indiscriminately firing without verifying their targets,” said Fr. Santiago Salas, NDF-EV spokesperson in the statement.
The NDF-EV said its unit in Leyte has been ordered to investigate the incident.
“We trust that the NPA's Mt. Amandewin Command in Leyte is investigating this grave incident to clarify what really happened and to help attain justice for the victims," said Salas.
Salas described the Army’s 19th IB as the “massacre battalion,” alleging the Army unit’s involvement in at least 3 previous massacres and other rights violations.
The NDF-EV spokesperson also called on the Aquino government “not to whitewash but to swiftly investigate the incident and render justice to the victims, and to take steps to end the brutal militarization of Eastern Visayas that led to the massacre.”
Salas also sent the NDF-EV’s its condolences to the bereaved family and friends of Co.
Photo from Leonardo L. Co: In Memoriam Facebook page