MANILA, Philippines – Soldiers found mass graves believed to hold the remains of up to 300 people allegedly killed by communist guerrillas in the 1980s during a purge of suspected spies in the Philippines' remote east, officials said Thursday.
Former New People's Army rebels and relatives are willing to testify against leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines who allegedly ordered the purge, including one alleged former leader who is now a lawmaker, said regional army spokesman Maj. Felix Mangyao.
The New People's Army is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
Troops and relatives have dug up at least 67 bodies since the graves were recently discovered in an area called "Garden," a hilly jungle near the town of Inopacan in Southern Leyte province, about 385 miles southeast of Manila, said military spokesman Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro.
The shallow graves could contain the remains of as many as 300 people, based on information from former rebels and victims' relatives, Bacarro said. Military chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon visited the site, accompanied by police forensic experts and victims' relatives, who wept as the remains were unearthed.
Skulls were placed beside graves marked by bamboo crucifixes and numbers. One villager, Domingo Eras, said he recognized the remains of his brother, who was abducted by the rebels.
"I remember the clothes he wore," he told ABS-CBN television.
Another villager, Lilia Pepito, said she only wanted to find the remains of three relatives, who were seized by the rebels. "Even if I just find their skulls or bones. At least I can (bury) something," she said, sobbing.
Forensic experts will take on the daunting task of identifying the remains by analyzing DNA, which could serve as evidence in possible criminal cases, Bacarro said.
"Some of the relatives wept, and the others were happy because of the prospect of an end to their search for loved ones who have long been missing," he said.
Opposition Rep. Satur Ocampo, a former rebel leader linked by the army to the deadly purges, has denied any involvement in the killings. Ocampo was jailed from 1976-85, then escaped and rejoined the rebels. He was arrested again in 1989 and decided not to rejoin the rebels when he was freed several years later.
Ocampo said he suspected the army may have announced the graves' alleged existence to bolster police claims that communist guerrillas were behind numerous recent killings of left-wing activists. The killings have been condemned by human rights groups and prompted President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to order an investigation.
Left-wing groups have blamed the recent killings on the military, which has denied involvement.
"I was not aware when those supposed purgings were happening," said Ocampo.
Leaders of the Communist Party and the New People's Army have acknowledged that a number of rebel commanders killed 600-900 suspected spies and government informers in the southern Mindanao region during the 1980s.
More than 60 other suspected spies were killed in Quezon province and outlying areas southeast of Manila, according to people who survived the purges.
After learning of the purges, top rebel leaders ordered them stopped. Their commanders were investigated and eventually expelled from the rebel movement, Ocampo said. The guerrillas later acknowledged the killings as among the most horrible blunders in the Marxist insurgency, which has raged for 37 years.