Foreigners caught in AFP-NPA crossfire, all safe
BUKIDNON, Philippines – The foreign birdwatchers caught in a gun battle between government troops and communist rebels in Bukidnon are all safe but are still recovering from "shock," Philippine authorities said.
The birdwatchers were caught in a crossfire between the 1st Special Forces Battalion and the New People’s Army at 8:55 am on Friday, February 13, in Mount Kitanglad, Barangay Kapitan Angel.
Lieutenant Colonel Nasser Lidasan, commanding officer of the 1st SF Battalion, said on Friday that the birdwatchers were able to exit the contact point while their wounded guide, Carlito Gayramara, managed to send a text message about his condition.
Gayramara was shot in the right arm and required immediate medical attention.
“A habal-habal (motorcycle) driver fetched Gayramara and took him to the hospital, while the birdwatchers and their guide stayed at the Del Monte Lodge waiting for their exit vehicle,” Lidasan said.
Records showed that the 7 foreigners were able to leave the lodge around 2 pm on Friday and were taken to Cagayan de Oro City.
'State of shock'
Lidasan said that the foreigners were unharmed but one of them described themselves as still recovering from "shock."
There were 7 foreigners in the group but only 5, accompanied by local guides, went to Mount Kitanglad early Friday morning, said Colonel Jessie Alvarez, commanding officer of the 403rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army.
Alvarez said the other two did not join the group and remained at the Del Monte Lodge where the group was staying.
The foreigners were identified as:
- Peter Simpson (UK)
- Paul Thomas Rendell (UK)
- Jill Patricia Rendel (UK)
- Leo Soegaard Borch (Denmark)
- Birgitte Noerregaard (Denmark)
- Ole Frederiksen (Denmark)
- Richard Lindsay Johnstone (Australia)
Lidasan talked to British national Peter Simpson on the phone when the group arrived in Cagayan de Oro.
"We were shocked. We just got out of a firefight,” Simpson was heard telling Lidasan, who was on speaker phone.
Group issued permit
Simpson added that his group was "able to secure a permit from the wildlife bureau to do bird watching."
The permit issued by the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources allowed the group to stay in the area between February 11, 2015, to February 14, 2015.
According to Alvarez, the government troops were sweeping the area between Kapitan Angel and Barangay Dalwangan as part of the military's clearing operations.
He said he was surprised that birdwatchers were in the area when the military operations have been going on for a week.
On February 11, one soldier was killed in an encounter with heavily-armed rebels – the same group that government troops encountered two days later, on Friday morning.
The birdwatchers were in the same vicinity where the 10-minute firefight took place.
Provincial peace and order council convened
“We are still trying to verify the exact coordinate where the encounter ensued and the path of the bird watchers took, so we can establish who hit Gayramara,” Alvarez said.
Bukidnon Governor Jose Maria Zubiri said that the provincial peace and order council has been convened to look into the security of the province.
Mount Kitanglad is a protected area that has long attracted nature lovers due to its diverse wildlife, especially birds.
In 2012, two European birdwatchers from the Netherlands and Switzerland, were abducted while on an expedition to photograph rare birds in remote Tawi-Tawi, also in the southern Philippines.
The Swiss man, Lorenzo Vinciguerra, escaped from the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militants who were holding them in December but the Dutchman, Ewold Horn, has not been rescued, and there was no information yet about him. – with a report from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com