4 dead, 12 wounded in Nueva Ecija shootout

- Cecille Suerte Felipe, Ding Cervantes () - April 28, 2007 - 12:00am
Police escorts of two rival politicians in Nueva Ecija shot it out at a roadblock shortly after a political campaign late Thursday, leaving four people dead and 12 injured, including two sons of a former Jaen town mayor.

Dead from gunshot wounds were a policeman and a candidate for councilor. The two other fatalities were not immediately identified.

The violence came on the heels of 22 other election-related deaths.

Thursday’s shootout is the worst poll-related violent incident ahead of the May 14 elections, prompting calls for Nueva Ecija to be placed under the control of the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

Central Luzon police director Chief Superintendent Ismael Rafanan ordered the relief of the Jaen town police chief Inspector Melencio Atendido and the deployment of more officers to prevent the escalation of violence in the province. The National Bureau of Investigation is joining the investigation.

Rafanan said the firefight erupted when police assigned to pro- administration Nueva Ecija Rep. Rodolfo Antonino opened fire on a convoy, which failed to stop at a roadblock in Barangay Dinampol in the town of Jaen.

In the convoy were Antonino’s political rivals, including former Jaen mayor Antonio Esquivel of the Liberal Party (LP).

"We’re determining who among the policemen fired the first shots that triggered the exchange of fire," Rafanan said, stressing that police protection for the politicians was authorized by the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

Police said there was no authorized PNP-Comelec checkpoint in the area.

Killed in the shootout were Rufino Galang, 54, candidate for the municipal council; and SPO1 Buddy Ferrer, who was assigned to the provincial police headquarters.

Wounded were Esquivel’s sons Lawrence Anthony who is running for vice mayor of Jaen, and Mark Anthony, a mayoral candidate. The two were rushed to the Cardinal Santos Memorial Hospital in Manila.

The others wounded were SPO1 Noly Rey Perez, 42, SPO2 Elmer Bautista, 48; PO2 Egbert Castillo, 31; PO1 Emerson Nagano, 35; PO2 Nestor Ramos, 30; PO1 Michael Valenzuela, Conrado Reyes, Ireneo Yadro, Teofila Mangunay and Patricio Belen.

Found at the scene of the shooting were 150 empty shells of M-16, M-14, 9mm pistol, and .45 cal. pistol. The shooting lasted for about five minutes, according to witnesses.

"It could be a spur of the moment. These police officers are known to one another but it is unfortunate that they will be shooting at each other. They should act as the referees here," he said.

Nearly 87,000 candidates are vying for 17,000 national and local positions. All 265 House of Representatives seats and half of the 24 Senate seats also are up for grabs.

The violence prompted Philippine National Police chief Director General Oscar Calderon to recommend putting Nueva Ecija under Comelec control.

"Keeping peace and order during the election period is the biggest challenge confronting us," Calderon said, before flying to the province to supervise the initial investigation. He also announced the creation of Task Force Jaen to handle the investigation.

"Traditionally, the homestretch is the critical point when passions flare, old rivalries heat up and last-minute issues develop," he said.

Calderon said that as part of the election gun ban, police had already disarmed 52 out of 90 private armies and arrested 2,000 violators.

Comelec is open to Calderon’s recommendation. "I am seriously considering placing the 3rd and 4th districts of Nueva Ecija under Comelec control," Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos said. Abalos is expected to visit Cabanatuan today to assess the situation.

Director Wilfredo Garcia, chief of the Directorate for Operations, said the possible disqualification of Antonino and Esquivel would be discussed in the coming PNP-Comelec command conference.

Senate President Manuel Villar, who is running for re-election, welcomed Calderon’s recommendation to place Nueva Ecija under Comelec control.

"I think the PNP is right. There is a need for an increased presence of police and troops there," Villar said.
History of distrust
Antonino, uncle of re-electionist South Cotabato Rep. Darlene Antonino-Custodio, and the elder Esquivel, both from Jaen, have a long history of political rivalry.

The two, however, used to be allies of Vice Gov. Mariano Cristino Joson, provincial chairman of the pro-administration Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino (Kampi).

Antonino is a relative of former two-term mayor Cesar Eduardo who lost to Esquivel in the 2004 elections.

The feud between Antonino and Esquivel worsened when the mayor was ordered dismissed by the Ombudsman last January for illegally terminating three waterworks employees three years ago. Esquivel believed Antonino was behind his dismissal. He also accused Antonino of plotting to assassinate him. Antonino denied the accusations.

Esquivel’s post was taken over by Vice Mayor Santy Austria who is also running for mayor.

Following his dismissal, Esquivel distanced himself from Joson and joined the LP.

The STAR gathered that Antonino and Esquivel figured in a near shootout after a heated argument last Tuesday in the wake of Victoriano Villarta, father of Edward Villarta, National Bureau of Investigation deputy director for intelligence service.

When the two politicians’ bodyguards drew their guns, NBI Cabanatuan agent-in-charge Pedro Roque stepped in to pacify the two.

"Had not our men intervened, an expected bloody encounter could have happened which could have led to the loss of lives due to the presence of many civilians in the wake," Roque said.
Abra violence
A barangay captain and a councilman were killed in separate incidents in Abra, which is one of the election hotspots in the country.

Senior Supt. Alexander Pumecha, Bangued PNP director, identified one of the victims as Eddie Tadeo, 38 of barangay Pagala, Bucay town. The other fatality was not yet identified as of press time.

Pumecha said that Tadeo was sitting in front of the cathedral, near a police station, when a man shot him twice with a ,45 cal. pistol.

The councilman, on the other hand, was found dead in his room with gunshot wounds. Neighbors said they heard gunshots the night before.

According to police sources, five more barangay officials are targets of assassins. But Pumecha said he has no knowledge of the alleged slay plot.

Meanwhile, an unidentified man shot and wounded Gil Borreta, reportedly a campaigner of a Bangued mayoralty bet. Borreta was hospitalized for gunshot wounds in the feet.

Pumecha said Borreta claimed to be an employee of Gov. Vicente Valera, but police said they would have to check if the attack was poll-related. With Ric Sapnu, Sheila Crisostomo, Evelyn Macairan, Dino Balabo, Manny Galvez, Christina Mendez, Artemio Dumlao, Myds Supnad

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