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MANILA, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Feb. 07, 2008) – US soldiers aiding Filipino troops in fighting the Abu Sayyaf maybe involved in the operation that killed seven Muslim civilians and a government soldier in the southern Philippines, reports said Thursday.

Filipino troops trained by US forces were blamed for the killings of 8 people during a military operation early Monday in the town of Maimbung in Sulu province. Among the dead were two children and two teenagers, including a pregnant woman and an off-duty army soldier.

The Philippine military insisted the operation targeted the Abu Sayyaf and two soldiers and three militants were also killed in subsequent fighting that erupted in the village of Ipil.

Those killed were identified as Marisa Payian, 4; Wedme Lahim, 9; Alnalyn Lahim, 15; Sulayman Hakob, 17; Kirah Lahim, 45; Eldisim Lahim, 43; Narcia Abon, 24; all civilians and Pfc. Ibnul Wahid, of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division.

Wahid’s wife, Rawina, said she saw four US soldiers on a boat used by the raiders. «May nakita akong apat na Kano sa naval boat pagsakay ko na. Pagdating ko doon, piniringan kaagad ang mata ko. Sabi ko sa kanila, bakit nyo piniringan ang mata ko?, sabi nila ‘para pagdating namin dito sa itaas wala kang makita.»

«(I saw four Americans on the naval boat. When I climbed aboard, the soldiers blindfolded me. I asked them, ‘why did you blindfold me?’ They said, ‘so that you won’t see anything when we climb up.),» Rawina Wahid, wife of the slain soldier, told the ABS-CBN television in an interview. Valentine’s Day Lingerie

Wahid said she boarded a Philippine Navy boat that took her husband’s remains to a military base in Jolo town.

ABS-CBN reported that other villagers also noticed the presence of US soldiers on the boat. It quoted reports by the human rights groups Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society and the Suara Bangsamoro that the presence of the US forces in the area raised concerns about its involvement in local military operations, which violates the Philippine Constitution.

«Maraming tao diyan sa tabi ng naval boat at doon nakita nila yung mga sundalo na sumakay sa naval boat. Tapos ‘yung mga American forces din nasa itaas.»

«(They were many people near the naval boat and they saw the soldiers boarding it. The American forces were also aboard.),» ABS-CBN quoted Temugen Tulawie, of the CBCS, as saying.

«Sinasabi na with the presence of the US soldiers sa Sulu, magiging professional na daw yung AFP at mawawala ‘yung human rights violation. Mukhang iba ang nangyayari, tino-tolerate pala.»

«(They said that with the presence of US soldier in Sulu, the Armed Forces of the Philippines will be professionalized and there will lessen human rights violations. It seems the other way around, they were tolerating it.),» Tulawie said.

Maj. Gen. Ruben Rafael, commander of an anti-terror task force in Sulu province, denied the reports and said US soldiers were not involved in the operation. «No US soldiers were involved in the operation and they were not even near the town when the fighting broke out,» Rafael told the Mindanao Examiner by phone from his headquarters in Sulu.

Rafael said the military is still investigating the killings of the civilians, although he insisted the operation targeted the Abu Sayyaf group which is holding a kidnapped trader Rosalie Lao. «We are conducting our own investigation and we assure that there will be no cover-up in the probe,» he said.

Sulu Gov. Sakur Tan has condemned the killings of the innocent civilians and vowed to file criminal charges against the soldiers. He said many of those killed were shot in the head.

«Innocent civilians were killed. The children were shot in the head. We condemned the killings and those soldiers involved in the murder of innocent people must be charged in court and pay for their crimes,» Tan said.

Philippine Defense chief Gilberto Teodoro is expected to fly to Sulu later this week to meet with Tan and other provincial officials about the killings.

Philippine flags around Sulu were flown at half-mast since Tuesday as Muslims mourn the deaths of innocent civilians. Villagers said some of those killed were shot at sea while trying to escape the fighting on boat. The soldiers who raided the village were members of the Army’s Light Reaction Company, trained by US forces, and Navy’s Special Warfare Group.

On Thursday, the SALINLAHI Alliance for Children’s Concerns, an umbrella organization of child rights and welfare groups, strongly condemned the killings and urged for an independent probe of the incident.

«The usual casualties in this campaign are innocent civilians, particularly women and children. The incident again proved that the anti-terrorism campaign as well as the counter-insurgency program of the Armed Forces of the Philippines directed against the handful Abu Sayyaf and other armed groups is absorbed more by the civilian population rather than their real targets,» Alphonse Rivera, the group’s spokesman, said.

«Every incident involving military personnel as perpetrators is dismissed by the military top-brass as casualties of «legitimate encounters» to justify their acts and escape culpability. The next thing we will hear is that the military will insist that these children are also Abu Sayyaf members as if that will justify the killing,» Rivera said.

Reps. Yusop Jikiri, of Sulu province and Mujiv Hataman, of Basilan have separately called for a congressional investigation into the killings in Maimbung town.

Jikiri, a former rebel leader of the Moro National Liberation Front, said the off-duty soldier killed along with seven civilians was shot in front of his wife.

«Wahid was reportedly hogtied first before he was shot in front of her. The wife, in fact, showed the military uniform of her husband, but the soldiers merely ignored the plea of Mrs. Wahid. Later, Mrs. Wahid was taken by the soldiers to the rubber boat allegedly driven by an American soldier,» Jikiri said in a privilege speech in Congress on Wednesday.

Hataman also filed a resolution on Thursday seeking for an urgent investigation of the killings, which he described as «despicable, loathsome and ruthless.»

«There is no valid reason, especially for the soldiers who are supposed to be the protector of the people, to kill innocent civilians, particularly children,» he said.

The Commission on Human Rights has sent a team in Sulu province and is currently investigating the killings. (Mindanao Examiner)

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