A noted Philippine botanist and two guides were killed during a clash between soldiers and communist rebels in the central Philippines, the military said on Wednesday.

Leonardo Co and his assistants were gathering specimens in a forest in Leyte province’s Kananga township on Monday when troops engaged seven New People’s Army guerrillas in a gunbattle, said Lt. Gen. Ralph Villanueva. Two others in Co’s group survived.

“As of now, we don’t know yet (who hit the civilians) but we are quite confident that it’s not our soldiers,” Lt. Gen. Villanueva told reporters. “As to who, we cannot yet definitely say at this time.”

Investigations in progress

Separate police and military investigations were ongoing, Lt. Gen. Villanueva said. The rebels did not issue a statement over the incident.

Co, 56, was president of the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society. Scientists named the parasitic plant species Rafflesia leonardi that is found in the Philippines in his honour. He authored two books, including one on medicinal plants in the northern Philippines.

Co was working for power generator Energy Development Corp. as a consultant for a reforestation project, said company spokesman Fernando Diaz de Rivera.

Security protocol

The company had a strict security protocol that required staff to inform military officials whenever employees ventured into the forest. Co’s group had been given a security clearance for that day, said Mr. de Rivera.

The rebels did not have any encampments in the area, he said.

Co’s colleagues and family members questioned the military’s version of the fatal shooting.

“To conclude at this point that (the military) was not responsible is premature,” said Darwin Flores, his brother-in-law.

Perry Ong, director of the Institute of Biology at the University of the Philippines, said troops may have mistaken the group for rebels and opened fire.

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