The 5th Special Forces Battalion of the Philippine Army raided a communist guerrilla hideout and killed five members, including an explosives expert, of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). 

Philippines military officials identified the dead as Romeo Libron, the NPA’s chief of ordnance of the NPA in the Mindanao region, his wife Merly, his deputy Rogelio Magsaya and two fighters.

Filipino troops had tracked down the group and were attempting to place them under arrest when the group opened fire. The Special Forces troops returned fire mortally wounding the insurgents. 

“They were killed following a law enforcement operation shortly before 5 a.m. in the village of Ned in the town of Lake Sebu of South Cotabato province,” Lt. Col. Randy Banaag, commander of the 5th SF Bn, told reporters.

“Troops were fired upon by an undetermined number of armed men, prompting our men to return fire,” Banaag specified. “They were injured. We brought them to the hospital but [they] were declared dead on arrival.”

Banaag added that local residents had tipped off the army that the communist guerrillas were in the area on a recruitment drive. After the operation, the SF troops recovered weapons, ammunition, as well as homemade explosives constructed by Libron at the site of the raid. 

Floro Gandam, the mayor of the town where the raid took place, said that the NPA guerrillas, based in the Compostela Valley in Davao de Oro province, were trying to recruit “new fighters” for the armed wing of the outlawed Maoist-led Communist Party of the Philippines.

When Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte was first elected he had reached out to the CPP and the NPA to negotiate peace. Yet, he accused the communist insurgents of acting in bad faith during the negotiations and carrying out attacks against Filippino soldiers who were conducting humanitarian missions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This derailed the negotiations. Now, the battle against the CPP continues unabated.

The CPP has about 5,000 active fighters spread out over 80 different groups in the Philippines. 

Duterte had once been a student of CPP founder Jose Maria Sison. His hard-line approach has brought the army under the microscope for an incident that has caused human rights watchers to speak out against the government and the military. 

The military was called out after posing for a picture with a dead communist fighter of the NPA, who also happens to be the daughter of a congresswoman. 

The dead NPA fighter was identified as 22-year-old Jevilyn Campos Cullamat, the daughter of House of Representative member Eufemia Cullamat.

The outrage began when the military photo was published by the Philippine News Agency. The photograph depicted many soldiers posing behind several captured weapons and equipment with Cullamat splayed out just in front of the soldiers. 

The photo was later deleted but the damage was done. Her mother lambasted the army over publishing the photo. 

“She is not a thing, she is not a trophy to be paraded for military propaganda. You did not respect the dead, you are also disrespecting our family’s grief,” she said.

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“Committing outrages upon personal dignity is a war crime under the Rome Statute as it applies to dead persons under the ‘Elements of Crimes’ of the International Criminal Court,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director.

“Evidently posed photographs of the body… are a cruel and unnecessary affront to that individual’s dignity and violate the laws of war.”

Cullamat was the medic of a guerrilla unit that fought with troops on Saturday in Surigao del Sur province. She also belonged to the group’s youth propaganda wing.