Allen V. Estabillo  SUN STAR General Santos

CATHOLIC Church leaders have raised concerns over the increasing presence of government troops in several villages of Columbio town in Sultan Kudarat, which are backed by a full battalion now permanently encamped at the town’s center. Bishop Romulo Valles of the Diocese of Kidapawan said they have stepped up their monitoring on possible human rights violations committed by elements of the Army’s 25th Infantry Battalion. Congratulations to the graduates of 2006! Post your graduation experiences and greetings here. The troops were deployed to Columbio late last year. “We alerted our workers in the area to closely monitor the ongoing military activities, especially in the remote parts of the town,” Valles said.
Although part of Sultan Kudarat, the Diocese of Kidapawan where Bishop Valles is the prelate covers Columbio. Fr. Peter Geremia, director of the diocese’s Tribal Filipino Program, said he doubts the motive of the deployment of the entire 25th IB in Columbio since the local government reportedly had no prior knowledge of the deployment. “The Municipal Government did not make any request for the deployment of an army battalion in the area,” said Geremia, who spends considerable time in Columbio because of his continuing work with various tribal communities in the area. Elements of 25th IB are now encamped at a former nursery of the Department of Agriculture in Poblacion and at a vacant site near a public elementary school in Barangay dela Paz in Columbio. He said the unit’s deployment in the area was reportedly set for a long term. Geremia said the diocese was officially informed about the troop movement when he attended a dialogue between local stakeholders and officials of the 25th IB on December 10, 2005 in Tulunan, Cotabato province. The deployment was reportedly done along with a directive to launch an intensified campaign against NPA members and sympathizers in the area. But Geremia believes the presence of the 25th IB in Columbio may have something to do with the ongoing exploration activities of Australian-owned mining firm Sagittarius Mines Inc. “Since the exploration activities in the area started in 1995, Columbio has become a regular scene of military operations. And now that Sagittarius has started preparing for the actual mining operation, a full Army battalion is suddenly assigned in the area,” he said.
But Colonel Franklin del Pardo, spokesperson of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, played down the concerns raised by the Diocese of Kidapawan saying the deployment of the 25th IB in Columbio was purely an operational matter. “It was decided by the division G-3 or operations unit based on its assessment on the area’s security situation. In the case of Columbio, the assignment of the 25 th IB was warranted by the presence of the NPA in the area,” he said. Del Prado added that the 25th IB’s assignment in Columbio was “not necessarily” to protect the interests of Sagittarius but of the entire populace covered by the unit’s operations. (Allen V. Estabillo)