AFP to probe ‘crossfire death’ of UP botanist

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) yesterday said it will probe the encounter in Leyte late Monday where a Filipino botanist and two of his companions were killed during a firefight between government troops and communist rebels.

UP botanist Leonardo Co and two others were searching for tree species in a remote village in Kananga town in Leyte when a gunbattle between troops of the 19th Infantry Battalion and members of the New People’s Army (NPA) erupted.

At the time of the said incident, Co and his company was reportedly doing research work for the Energy Development Corp. (EDC).

Meanwhile, Sen. Pia. Cayetano condemned the killing of Co, one of the country’s top botanists known for helping communities identify and classify herbal medicinal plants in their localities.

“His role in the community may have been low-key and perhaps often unnoticed, but it has brought invaluable help to our people in developing their knowledge and skill on traditional herbal medicines,” said Cayetano, chairperson of the Senate committee on health and demography.

Cayetano called on the government to provide sufficient security for scientists and foresters doing field work in far-flung provinces, especially those known to be areas of conflict between government troops and armed rebel groups.

She made a similar appeal on behalf of medical professionals doing volunteer work in rural areas after a volunteer nurse was raped and maimed by still unidentified perpetrators in South Upi, Maguindanao last September.

AFP vice chief Lt. Gen. Reynaldo Mapagu said they have initiated an investigation over the said incident to see if there were lapses on the part of the government troops.

“If there are troops involved (in the death of Co), then so be it. We will do the right or the necessary measures so that we can address the problem,” Mapagu told defense reporters.

The investigation will be conducted by the Army’s 8th Infantry Division (ID) under Maj. Gen. Mario Chan, which has administrative and operation control of the army units that figured in the encounter with rebels in Leyte.

The investigation to be conducted by the 8th ID is in parallel to the ones being done by the local police force in the area, says Lt. Gen. Ralph Villanueva, commander of the AFP’s Central Command (Centcom), that has jurisdiction over the Visayas area.

Villanueva said troops were dispatched in the area after receiving reports that EDC is under “imminent attack” from a group of armed men believed to be rebels who have been sighted earlier.

“There was an encounter, because there was an imminent attack to EDC and our soldiers operated… when the fire-fight was over, we discovered that some (EDC) employees were hit,” Villanueva said.

The Centcom chief said that the army unit that figured in Monday’s encounter in Leyte had already been restricted to their camp and are making themselves available for investigation by the police. (Anthony Vargas/D’Jay Lazaro)

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