BAGUIO CITY—The Commission on Human Rights and the Cordillera police have each sent independent fact-finding teams to Rizal, Kalinga, to unearth the reasons behind a 10-hour gun battle between a group of settlers and a team of policemen and soldiers on Monday.
Nine of the people who engaged government troops in the gunfight died while at least 10 policemen were wounded. A woman, identified as Abak Tayaan, was among the fatalities.
Russell Ma-ao, CHR Cordillera director, said teams were sent out as early as Tuesday (June 26) when reports of the standoff in Sitio Malapiat in Barangay San Pascual reached Baguio City.
Rizal Mayor Marcelo de la Cruz said three CHR representatives from Cagayan witnessed the gun battle. The CHR employees arrived while the gunfight was raging.
Ma-ao said the witnesses have yet to make an official report on the incident.
The conflict occurred in a property that used to belong to the family of the late Sen. Vicente Madrigal.
Officials of the Department of Agrarian Reform in the Cordillera said the Supreme Court, in a 2003 decision, converted the 2,000-hectare estate into public lands that allowed DAR to parcel it for local farmers.
Ma-ao said the CHR team would try to determine whether De la Cruz was justified in ordering the ejection of settlers from a disputed 200-ha area in the estate.
She said their reports indicated that the estate was still plagued by conflicting property claims.
Although most of the estate had been parceled off through the distribution of free patent awards, certificates of land ownership award and certificates of ancestral land title, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples said ancestral land claimants still contested the lots.
The settlers had claimed to represent some of these ancestral land claimants.
De la Cruz said there was no haste in ordering the demolition.
“As early as February, the government alerted the public over the radio not to settle in that area. We also sent out letters to the settlers warning them not to stay there,” he told the Inquirer.
The Rizal town government had demolished houses there before, but settlers returned, he said.
De la Cruz said he anticipated that the Monday demolition would trigger violence, which explained the need for armed security escorts.
The mayor said he has yet to receive a complaint of human rights violations following the incident.
But Chief Supt. Raul Gonzales, Cordillera police director, said he wanted an independent assessment of the tragedy “before other interest groups start riding on the issue again.”
The police investigation will determine whether the Kalinga policemen responded to the attack “by the book.”
Police said they were forced to burn at least 30 houses to build up smoke to shield them and the demolition team from their attackers.
The armed residents hid in foxholes dug around the community, said Gonzales. The residents, he said, were later forced to retreat to their houses where they continued firing at policemen and soldiers.
De la Cruz said Tayaan was the only woman who the local government was able to account for after the fighting, although some police reports indicated that more women were involved.
De la Cruz said Tayaan was found dead inside one of the foxholes. He said a gun was found near her body.