Haunting

Terror grips tribal folk as probe starts in village chief’s slay

CAMP SATURNINO DUMLAO, Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines–Authorities are looking into initial statements of witnesses which they hope would provide a breakthrough in the ongoing investigation of the murder of a village chief in upland Didipio in Kasibu town, site of a controversial large-scale mining project.

But Superintendent Domingo Lucas, acting provincial director, admitted the slow progress in the investigation, citing the terror that has gripped Didipio residents following Thursday’s killing of their village chief Paulino Baguilat Sr.

“They (witnesses) are scared. We can sense that they know something, but they just would not say it. We may have to wait until they have recovered from the shock,” he said.

Baguilat, 52, was found dead on Friday morning by his daughter, Tennesy, along a grassy trail about 100 meters from his house in the sub-village of Pimmadek, as she was on her way to work at OceanaGold Philippines, Inc. an Australian firm attempting to construct a gold-copper project in the area.

The body bore one gunshot wound on his left cheek, two on the chest, one on the left arm, and a stab wound on his left breast, Lucas said, quoting the autopsy report.

The fallen village chief is set to be buried Tuesday beside his house, in keeping with Ifugao customs, OceanaGold officials said.

Police recovered four empty shells of cal. 5.56 M16 rifle about five meters from the body. M16 is a firearm commonly issued legally to military and police personnel.

Men in fatigues

Lucas said they are now tracking down the identities of three men who witnesses saw near the crime scene Thursday evening, as well as the whereabouts of two others who were last seen talking with the victim minutes before he was killed.

“One witness said she saw the three men, who wore faded fatigue jeans and colored shirts, passed by her house. One of them carried a long firearm,” said the police official, quoting a statement issued to the police by a Didipio resident.

Around that time, Baguilat’s son, Archan, also saw his father talking to two men, who he identified as Luis Binwag and Lyndon Lunag, in front of the store of his uncle Luis Baguilat.

About 40 minutes after he returned home, he heard the volley of gunshots, Archan said.

Lucas said policemen went to the two men’s known places of residence but failed to locate them there.

“Even so, we don’t consider them as suspects just yet,” he added, while also declining to link the murder to any group and downplaying theories that the New People’s Army was responsible for it.

“If it were the NPA, at least by this time, they should have come out with a statement owning up to it. But it may still be possible and we are not discounting it,” he said.

Villagers’ accounts were consistent in having heard several gunshots ring out at around 6:50 p.m. Thursday, Lucas said, but residents did not pay much attention to it because sporadic gunshots have become common in the village in the past months.

Didipio officials earlier expressed concern over the proliferation of firearms, both licensed and unlicensed, in Didipio amid the growing tension brought about by the controversy on the planned operation of OceanaGold.

The company has been trying to clear the lands and eject its Ifugao residents within a 425-hectare area in Didipio, site of its proposed production area. Many agreed to sell their rights to these lands to the company, while others refused to leave.

“I know of many who have bought guns from the proceeds of the sale of the rights to their lands,” said a Didipio council member, who asked not to be named for security reasons.

They have also criticized the open display of high-powered firearms by the company’s security guards and members of the provincial police mobile group deployed in the area. This, they said, prompted many residents to fear for their safety and to take up arms in order to defend themselves.

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