MANILA • Philippine police opened fire as a protest by thousands of rice farmers who lost their crops turned violent yesterday, killing one and wounding about a dozen, a leader of a farming group said.
About 6,000 farmers blocked a portion of the main highway in North Cotabato province on the southern island of Mindanao, demanding government assistance after drought linked by some to El Nino hit hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland.
"Loud bursts of gunfire erupted," Ms Norma Capuyan, leader of a farmers' group, told reporters, claiming that high-powered rifles like M-16s were used.
"There was heavy volume of fire. We ran to a church compound and the police surrounded us," she said.
A farmer died on the spot and about a dozen others were hit in the legs and shoulders, Ms Capuyan said, adding that the police first tried to disperse them with water cannon but started shooting when they held their ground.
The agriculture ministry said the effects of El Nino were minimal. But the Department of Social Welfare and Development said on Thursday that over half a million Filipinos in southern Philippines have been affected by drought due to the prolonged El Nino phenomenon.
North Cotabato governor Emmylou Mendoza said about 20 police officers, who were serving an order to rescue minors in the barricade and to clear the highway, were wounded when the farmers attacked them with sticks and stones.
"While the police were trying to rescue the children, the protesters started throwing stones at them. At least 20 cops sustained wounds from the rocks. And then a gunshot was heard and a policeman reportedly got hit," Ms Mendoza said. She claimed that the first shot came from the protesters.
The police issued a statement saying they were investigating.
"Any violation of national police rules and regulations shall be meted (out) with the appropriate penalty," national police spokesman Chief Superintendent Wilben Mayor said in the statement.
The protest began on Wednesday when farmers barricaded the highway in Kidapawan, demanding a dialogue with the governor and the release of 15,000 sacks of rice she had promised to them as relief.
The agriculture ministry said more than 300,000ha of farmland had been affected by drought, causing loses of about 5.3 billion pesos (S$155.2 million) in rice and corn. It said the effects of El Nino were minimal.
But the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) said on Thursday that over half a million Filipinos in southern Philippines have been affected by drought due to the prolonged El Nino phenomenon.
Since the abnormal weather condition started late last year, the DSWD said, a total of 125,228 families and 626,140 people have been affected by the drought in North and South Cotabato and other parts of Mindanao.
Earlier this week, Ms Mendoza denied that the provincial government had done nothing to address the needs of the farmers.
"The funds are here but we have to follow a process. In fact, we are about to distribute rice to them in the coming days with the Department of Agriculture," she said.
REUTERS, PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK, XINHUA