MALACAÑANG described Wednesday the release of four policemen who were abducted by communist rebels in Surigao del Norte as a "groundbreaking event" that could lead to the resumption of peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front (NDF).
"This is a welcome development on the part of the NDF to release these four policemen. Certainly, we hope this is a groundbreaking event where the Communist Party of the Philippines–New People’s Army–National Democratic Front (CPP/NPA/NDF) would look forward to resuming the peace process without any condition," Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said during a press briefing Wednesday.
Lacierda reiterated the government is always prepared to sit down with them.
"We are always there. We are hopeful that this thing would move forward the peace table with respect to the left," he added.
Police Officer 3 (PO3) Vic Calubag Concon, PO1 Rey O’niel Morales, PO1 Joen Zabala and PO1 Edito Roquino, all of Alegria, Surigao del Norte were released in Barangay Hinimbangan in Kitcharao town in Agusan del Norter escorted by around 200 NPA guerrillas belonging to Front 16-A.
The four policemen were seized by a blocking force of the New People’s Army during the raid at Alegria police station last July 10.
During the release, Ka Joaquin, who spoke on behalf of Jorge “Ka Oris” Madlos, NDFP-Mindanao spokesperson said “this release is a goodwill gesture to promote the peace talks between the Government of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and as a response to the appeal of the families of the Prisoners of War (POW).”
Ka Joaquin said Ka Oris himself could have witnessed the release had the government granted the request of the NDFP for a 10-day ceasefire.
He said the NDFP asked for no precondition other than the conduct of safe release of the captives and could have happened earlier had the local crisis committee agreed to the proposal for a 10-day ceasefire.
Ka Joaquin said the captives were no longer subjected to a “preliminary investigation and possible litigation before the people’s court” because they wanted to relay to government their willingness to resume peace negotiations.
u201cNow that we have released the POWs, we hope the peace process could continue,” he said.
The policemen told reporters they were in good condition.
u201cThe rebels provided everything we need. They even gave us vitamins,” said Zabala.
He added they were always on the move, although they were not blindfolded and were treated well.
He said they were really afraid during the first few days, but their captors always appease them. During their first night in captivity, they said they could not sleep because they were so worried about their families.
u201cWe thanked the rebels for taking care of us in the mountain. We were never physically harmed and we were always given food,” Zabala said.
Morales said: “The rebels provided us safety and security. They have a medical team who frequently conducted checkups on us. We moved from one place to another to ensure we would not be caught in an encounter.”
Resume peace talks
Bishop Rhee Timbang of the Independent Church of the Philippines-Surigao Diocese, who headed the third party facilitators, thanked the rebels for treating their captives well and for heeding their plea for their safe release.
He was hoping the release would help push the resumption of peace talks.
“We want everlasting peace. We don’t want this thing to happen again and again. We don’t want violence,” he added.
Surigao del Norte Provincial Board Member Myrna M. Romarate, who also witnessed the release urged the government to make a step forward for the resumption of peace talks.
u201cWe have to achieve one goal here and that’s to attain peace and order in our province and to the country as well,” she said.
Romarate said one of the captives, Requino, is the husband of her niece.
She said this was the reason she forced herself to climb up the remote village to personally witness the release.
She was not afraid since there was a truce between the communist guerillas and government forces.
Bacuag Mayor Shiela Mae Orquina Cebedo, Surigao City Councilors Jose Begil Jr. and Baltazar Abian, Agusan del Norte Gov. Angel Amante, Butuan City Mayor Ferdinand Amante Jr., Kitcharao Mayor Aristotle Montante and Department of Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Hernani Braganza also witnessed the release.
After the release, the four policemen were brought to Kitcharao Central Elementary School where DILG Secretary Mar Roxas, Peace Process Secretary Teresita Deles and Philippine National Police Director General Alan Purisima and the families of the policemen were waiting.
It was a tearful reunion for the policemen and their respective families as the freed captives arrived at the school where their wives met and embraced them.
More than fiesta
Alvin Ponce, a village councilor in Hinimbangan said he could not believe the number of people who came to witness the release.
He said it was his first time to see such a large number of NPA rebels. He admitted having seen rebels pass by the village before but only in small numbers.
u201cIt’s more than fiesta here today,” he said.
For the 4th Infantry Division (4ID) freeing the four cops was due to public pressure.
u201cThey are just covering the true nature of the crime they have committed. It is still kidnapping, though,” 4ID acting spokesperson First Lieutenant Patrick Martinez said Wednesday.
u201cThe NPAs were wearing military uniform and the policemen were caught by surprise. There was an exchange of fire and there were casualties. The rebels were able to get the firearms from the policemen and escaped. Unfortunately, the vehicle they were riding got its tires flat so they were chased by the policemen. They (four police officers) were then abducted and taken to the mountains,” Martinez said.
Martinez believes the shirts are indicators of covering up the crime the NPA had done.
u201cIt is still kidnapping so they should not be declaring the captives as POWs. The family kasi made appeals to the NPA and this has been also a national topic so they were also quite hesitant to kill [if they had any intention to do so]. A mixture of social and public pressure that can greatly affect their propaganda if they will make a mistake,” Martinez added. (Sunnex, Mindanews, Khai Clenuar)