RECOVERED FIREARMS. Troopers of 3rd Special Forces Battalion of the Army recover five high-powered firearms and other belongings after a 30-minute encounter in Sitio Mikit, Barangay San Martin, Prosperidad, Agusan del Sur, on Friday (April 17, 2020). The Army troopers were providing security to front-liners tasked to release cash assistance through the Social Amelioration Program in the area when fired upon by the communist rebels. (Photo courtesy of CMO 2SFBn)

BUTUAN CITY – Government troops securing a team of local officials distributing cash assistance to residents engaged in a firefight with around 30 communist New People’s Army (NPA) rebels Friday (April 17) in the Agusan del Sur town of Prosperidad.

1Lt. Krisjuper Andreo J. Punsalan, the civil-military operations officer of the Army's 3rd Special Forces Battalion (3SFBn), said residents of Sitio Mikit, Barangay San Martin, Prosperidad, had complained of the rebels' extortion activity in the area prior to the firefight.

“No one was hurt on the side of the government troopers but we discovered bloodstains from the position of the NPA rebels,” Punsalan said in a statement Friday.

Punsalan said the troops managed to prepare for the encounter after being alerted by civilians about the NPA's plan to harass the troops securing the Municipal Social Welfare and Development (MSWD) personnel tasked to distribute the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) cash cards.

He said the NPA combatants fired upon the government troops who served as advance party to the MSWD personnel upon their arrival in the village, resulting in a 30-minute gun battle.

Government troops recovered five high-power firearms after the encounter, including an AK-47 rifle, two M16-A1 rifles with one M203 grenade launcher, and an M653 rifle.

Other items recovered from the encounter site include 12 backpacks, five bandoliers full of assorted ammunition, and commercial radio.

Punsalan said the villagers were afraid the rebels would force them to surrender their cash grants.

The SAP is being distributed in the whole Agusan del Sur following the declaration of an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) to contain the spread of 2019 coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in the area.

Punsalan said the ECQs has made the lives of NPA fighters "difficult nowadays. Their couriers could no longer access to the market centers in the area".

“This is the reason why the NPA extort the relief goods and food of the civilians especially in remote barangays,” he added.

Punsalan said that Barangay San Martin where Sitio Malit belongs is among the 30 barangays in Prosperidad that declared the NPA persona non grata earlier this year.

Lt. Col. Joey B. Baybayan, 3SFBn commander, condemned the NPA's attack on government troops and the alleged extortion on the villagers.

“While we are battling the Covid-19, these Communist NPA Terrorists (CNTs) are making the situation worse for the civilians especially those in the poorest sectors who are greatly affected by the quarantines,” Baybayan said.

Baybayan said pursuit operation is being conducted by the Army to ensure the safety of the residents in the area as well as the front-liners involved in the distribution of cash assistance and food packs to affected civilians.

Col. Allan Hambala, the Army's 401st Infantry Brigade commander, called on the security sector to "ensure the safety and security of all those involved in the delivery of basic services to the people of Agusan del Sur".

“We must protect the civilians and government workers from any form of harassments and extortion of the CNTs who are the real virus of the society,” Hambala said.

The NPA is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the Philippines. (PNA)