KORONADAL CITY -- Unidentified armed men attacked Monday night the mining area of foreign-backed Sagittarius Mines Inc. and burned an elementary school catering mainly to children of tribesmen, the military said.

Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Santiago, chief of the 27th Infantry Battalion, said investigation is underway to determine the motive for the burning of the Datal Biao Elementary School in Barangay Danlag, Tampakan, past 9 p.m. Monday.

For updates from around the country, follow Sun.Star on Twitter

"There are many lawless elements operating in that part [of the mines development site]. Some of them are NPA [New People's Army] rebels," he said.

The attack happened even with the recent deployment there of fresh military troops, who are conducting regular foot patrol to secure the area, Santiago added.

Barangay Danlag is part of the mines development site of Sagittarius Mines Inc. that is majority owned by Xstrata Copper, the world’s fourth largest copper producer, and Australian firm Indophil Resources NL as the junior partner.

Sagittarius is presently conducting a final feasibility study set to be completed before the first half of the year at a cost of $74 million.

Dagil Capion, a B'laan leader who spearheaded a barricade against Sagittarius, expressed fears the incident would be made an excuse for the permanent deployment of soldiers in their community that would tend to stifle opposition.

But Capion did not discount the involvement in the burning of the NPA rebels, who in two occasions since 2008 launched successful offensives against the mining company.

"There were traces of combat [shoes] that we’ve seen in the periphery of the scene," Capion said in a separate phone interview, lamenting also about the ill-fated school, which is the only one that for decades provide primary education to children in the mountains.

John B. Arnaldo, Sagittarius corporate affairs manager, said the company sponsors the education of several B'laan children in the razed school, which is catering to grades one to six pupils.

"We're committed to help rebuild the school as part of our social corporate responsibility within the project area," he assured.

But Arnaldo doubted the fear the incident will be used to transform Sitio Datal Biao into a militarized zone, apparently to protect the interest of the mining firm.

Rene Pamplona, an anti-mining campaigner of the local Catholic Church, also said the incident could just be a ploy to cast fear or neutralize opposition in the far-flung village.

"Members of the tribe in Datal Biao have set up barricades against the company. They want the company to pull-out," said Pamplona, who recently visited the place.

From the start, we've known all along that the company would want to relocate the tribesmen there to give way to their mining project, he added. (BSS)