MANILA - Three members of the Manobo tribe who were killed in an alleged firefight with the military in Surigao del Sur were not members of New People's Army, a local resident said Friday.
Willy Rodriguez, Lenie Rivas and a 12-year-old girl died in a supposed clash with members of the 3rd Special Forces Battalion of the Philippine Army in Barangay Diatagon, Lianga town on Tuesday, in what the military maintained was a legitimate operation.
"Napakalaking kasinungalingan po 'yong sinasabi nilang child warrior," a certain Jack (real name withheld) told ANC's "Rundown," referring to the minor.
"Sinasabi lang nila 'yan para pagtakpan 'yong pagmasaker doon sa 3 sibilyang lumad na mga magsasaka," he added.
(What they're saying about a child warrior is a big lie. They're only saying that to cover up the massacre of 3 civilian lumad (indigenous people) who were farmers.)
The victims came across the military after harvesting abaca, Jack said. Soldiers allegedly opened fire at the them, killing Willy, Lenie and her sister. Three others who were with the victims ran for their safety.
Jack said the soldiers brought the 12-year-old girl's remains to the community for identification, saying they were pursuing communist rebels.
"Hindi naman 'yan NPA eh. Nag-aaral 'yan sa alternative learning system," he said.
(She's not a member of NPA. She's studying in the alternative learning system.)
The bodies of Rodriguez and Rivas were later found in the farm.
Jack also rejected the military's claim that firearms and explosives were recovered from the victims.
"Wala silang ibang hawak kundi kagamitan sa pag-aani. 'Di sila puwedeng magkaroon ng baril dahil mga sibilyan po sila," he said.
(They only have farm implements. They don't have guns because they're civilians.)
Lianga Mayor Novelita Sarmen said the province has formed a fact-finding committee to investigate the incident.
The local government gave burial assistance to the victims' families, she said.
Sarmen said they would also hold a dialogue with IP members to ensure their safety after the victims have been laid to rest.
In a separate interview, AFP spokesperson Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo maintained those who died were members of the NPA, saying the terrorist group was trying to "distort the news."
"This is a legitimate military operation. The persons who died in this engagement were members of NPA and firearms were recovered from their possession," he said.
Arevalo said the operation was a result of a tip about an alleged encampment of communist rebels in the area.
According to the military report, Willy, Lenie and the 12-year-old girl wielded firearms and engaged the soldiers in a gunfight, he said.
"This led us to the conclusion that these are members of New People's Army because how else could they be able to wield firearms and fire upon our soldiers if they are not members of this terrorist group?" he added.
Arevalo also accused the NPA of recruiting members from indigenous groups.
"They are the ones who are trying to take advantage and exploit these indigenous peoples. They're forcing them into fighting government," he said.