By Carlos H. Conde
International Herald Tribune
Published: February 22, 2009
MANILA: A 16-month-old child was killed and several people were wounded during a government offensive that was believed to have been part of preparations for scheduled military exercises between Filipino and U.S. soldiers, the largest human rights group in the Philippines said Sunday.
The child, Rafaela Polborido, died after soldiers hit her family’s home with grenades on Feb. 19 in a village in Bicol, a region southeast of Manila, according to John Concepcion, secretary general for Bicol of the human rights group Karapatan. He said that eight civilians, including five children, were wounded.
Major Ramon Zagala, a military spokesman, said there would be an investigation into the child’s death.
About 2,500 Filipino soldiers and an estimated 6,000 U.S. troops, including about 400 engineers and medical personnel, will take part in the April exercises, Zagalo said.
Combat exercises will be held in Subic and Clark, the two former U.S. military facilities north of Manila. Groups opposed to the exercises have scheduled protest actions beginning Monday.
Concepcion said that the Philippine military had been conducting “clearing operations” in the provinces of Albay, Sorsogon and Masbate, adding that the operations were intended to flush out insurgents in areas where the exercises were to be held. Concepcion said his group had documented cases of assault, forced dislocations, destruction of property and harassment of civilians, particularly people that the military suspected of being “Communist sympathizers.”
The Bicol region, made of several poor, agricultural provinces in the eastern Philippines, is a stronghold of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
The military exercise has caused concern that the United States is being drawn into Philippine counterinsurgency operations. Previous exercises, known as Balikatan, have been held in the southern Philippines, where extremists and terrorist groups operate.
Although officials insist that the exercises in the Bicol region would mainly be humanitarian in nature, some residents are not convinced.
“It would be naïve of us to think that the U.S. Special Forces came here to Bicol just to play doctors and dentists,” said Jocelyn Bisuña, spokeswoman of the Bicol group Ban Balikatan.
Zagala disputed the characterization of the exercise by Karapatan and other rights groups, and he said it was unfair of critics to link present military operations to the Balikatan exercises. “The Balikatan exercises are part of our humanitarian effort,” he said. “We will handle the New People’s Army separately.”