By Bobby Q. Labalan
SORSOGON CITY --- A top ranking military official in the province said less than 10 percent of the 542 villages in Sorsogon province can be considered as under the influence of the New People’s Army (NPA).
Col. Fernando Trinidad, commanding officer of the Philippine Army’s 903rd Infantry Brigade based in Castilla, Sorsogon, said the communist rebel forces in the province continue to dwindle, giving warrant to the recent declaration of Sorsogon as a “conflict-manageable and development-ready” area.
He expressed confidence they have reduced the rebel forces to an insignificant level such that development programs and projects in the province could now be carried out with lesser apprehension from harassment by the NPA.
Trinidad, in an interview Tuesday, said the encounters between Army troopers and NPA cadres immediately after the peace talks bogged down between the government and the National Democratic Front early in February did not have any impact on the declaration.
He said police reports showed that the clashes between the two sides had occurred in the towns of Casiguran, Gubat and Casiguran, which were prior to the Army’s classification of the province as a “conflict-manageable” area.
Trinidad said Sorsogon can now fully pursue its programs and projects so that the people could enjoy the fruits of development
The Army commander estimated that the NPA has only about 30 regular armed partisans operating in the province who are led by one alias “Ka Magno.”
Trinidad, however, did not discount the possibility of attempts by the NPA to sow terror by launching sporadic armed operations.
“As we all know, this group ‘imports’ forces from other areas to augment their diminishing number so they could impress upon the public that they are still a force to reckon with,” he said.
But despite the declaration of Sorsogon as a “conflict-manageable” area, Trinidad said they will still maintain their presence in the province and their operation would still continue, albeit in a supporting role.
He explained that under the current situation it will now be the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the local government units that will be in the forefront of suppressing the remaining rebel forces.
“The military would still be here but we will no longer be the lead agency,” Trinidad pointed out. He added they will also play a supporting role in the anti-criminality campaign, especially in the campaign against illegal drugs, which has now been revived by the PNP.
Sorsogon province is the fifth province among the six provinces in the Bicol region to be declared as a “conflict-manageable” area.
Trinidad said he is confident that Masbate, the sixth Bicol province that is also under the area of operation of the 903rd Brigade, would be declared the same within the current semester.
“The task would be easier in the case of Masbate considering its geographical situation, being an island,” he said.
In February, a clash occurred between the NPA and Army troopers in Barangay Pangle, Aroroy, Masbate that resulted in the death of four NPA rebels, two of whom were said to be ranking NPA commanders in Sorsogon.