Muslim groups slammed President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday after the Philippine leader awarded medals to soldiers who had allegedly killed seven civilians in what the military had described as a clash with Abu Sayyaf militants.
Last week, the military claimed a major clash on the southern island of Jolo, in which seven alleged Abu Sayyaf militants were killed and 23 others, including 17 soldiers, were wounded.
But Muslim groups led by Suara Bangsamoro, a local human rights organization, claimed that the fatalities were not Abu Sayyaf fighters but were civilians, 18 to 32 years old.
They were reportedly members of a local community harvesting mangosteen, a tropical fruit, in a farm near the town of Patikul, a remote area considered a traditional Abu Sayyaf stronghold.
“We are enraged that President Duterte has honored the 17 Scout Rangers involved in the Patikul massacre in a ceremony in Jolo, Sulu,” said Jerome Succor Aba, the group’s leader.
“This callous maneuver of the government is a desperate attempt to wash the blood off the hands of the offending soldiers,” he said.
He claimed the army was making heroes “out of murderers” despite an investigation by the government’s rights body that testified to the innocence of the slain civilians.
Aba charged that responsibility for the killings fell on Duterte because the entire south is still under martial law. The president placed the south under military control to defeat pro-Islamic State (IS) forces that had taken over the city of Marawi last year.
The five-month siege killed about 1,200, most of them rebel fighters, and scarred the formerly scenic city of Marawi, which remains mostly deserted almost a year after the fighting ended.
“We hold President Duterte accountable for the bloodshed across Mindanao under his dictatorial rule,” Aba said. “The ensuing violence by state forces against the Bangsamoro is further emboldened by Duterte’s martial law in Mindanao.”
Duterte visited the military hospital on Jolo island last Monday, and pinned medals to the wounded troops.
Army Col. Gerry Besana, public affairs officer of the Western Mindanao Command, maintained that those killed in the operation were militants. He said the seven fatalities belonged to the 70-strong Abu Sayyaf force that had clashed with the scout rangers.
“They could ask the police or local officials on what really happened and not speculate,” Besana said.
Abdulnasser Badrudin, chairman of the Regional Human Rights Commission in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, said they were investigating the allegations from Aba’s group.
The Abu Sayyaf is notoriously known for decapitating their foreign and local hostages in the south. A German and two Canadians held captive by the group were beheaded after failing to pay ransom in 2016 and 2017, respectively, officials said.
Apart from kidnapping, the Abu Sayyaf is also blamed for the country’s worst terrorist attacks, including bombings. An Abu Sayyaf leader, Isnilon Hapilon, later became the IS leader in the Philippines and led a group in the Marawi attack.
Hapilon was killed in October, but his lieutenant, Basilan-based militant Furuji Indama, allegedly planned the bombing at a military checkpoint that left 11 dead in July.
Indama and 17 other Abu Sayyaf militants were charged for that attack, although the IS also claimed responsibility for the incident, saying the bomb was a suicide mission carried out by a Moroccan national.