Children, villagers slaughtered and homes burned in Zamboanga

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 February, 2003, 12:00am

Suspected Muslim separatists shot dead 14 villagers, including a baby and several children, in the southern Philippines late on Wednesday.

About 50 armed men ordered people out of their homes, lined them up and shot them. They also wounded four people and torched 10 houses and a community centre in the mountainous village of Poblacion, Kalawit town, in Zamboanga del Norte, 750km southeast of Manila.

Among the dead was six-week-old Benz Congreso. 'The infant was being carried by his mother,' one resident, Alma, 32, told The South China Morning Post yesterday.

Three other children also died: Roldan Akulbe, 10, and his sister Mary Grace, seven; as well as Benz Congreso's 11-year-old sibling Bername, police said.

Alma, a resident of Kalawit, recalled hearing gunfire shattering the evening stillness. Looking out, she saw that the sky was red less than a kilometre away from her home.

'There was gunfire for some minutes and all we could see was this fire,' she said.

Afterwards she learned that a village watchman had alerted police to the presence of many armed men. 'The soldiers arrived quickly,' she said, and 'near a cluster of houses they found many people, mostly males, dead'. Alma said she knew some of the victims.

The armed men had ordered all occupants in a cluster of homes out into the street. 'Those who refused, their houses were burned down with them inside.'

Military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel Lucero said some homes were peppered with bullets and grenades were lobbed at them.

'Others ran. They were shot,' Alma said, quoting those who had been lucky enough to escape. 'One was tied up.' The victims were warned not to run away, then raked with machinegun fire.

It was the shooting which alerted this small village of about 3,000 mostly Christian residents in Mindanao to the massacre. 'We don't really know who did it,' Alma said.

The military was quick to blame the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which had vowed to avenge the capture of its stronghold in central Mindanao by the military on Sunday.

Colonel Lucero claimed the rebels had tried to extort money from the victims, but rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu denied his group was involved.

Other sources said the village had suffered several unexplained murder and arson cases recently.

Last December, a village councillor and his wife died in a road ambush.