President Benigno Aquino III announced Wednesday night he was proclaiming a national day of mourning on Friday for the 44 fallen troopers of the Special Action Force (SAF).
Reading from a prepared statement in Filipino in a nationally televised broadcast three days after the clash in Mamasapano in Maguindanao province, the President also said that suspended Philippine National Police Director General Alan Purisima was not directly involved in the ill-fated operation to capture two high-value terrorists that led to the slaughter of the SAF commandos.
During the question-and-answer portion of his televised national address, the President clarified that Purisima had been reporting on the operation as early as May last year when the PNP obtained “actionable intelligence” on the targets but this stopped after he was suspended on corruption charges in December last year.
“I was talking directly to the SAF director if at all … he (Purisima) was involved up to the point in time directly (after) he was suspended by the Ombudsman. After that, if at all, and because he was very knowledgeable about the whole thing, he was just explaining to me the intricacies of the plan involved,” Mr. Aquino said.
The President urged the swift passage of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), saying failure to do so within the time frame hammered out in a peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) would mean the SAF commandos died in vain.
Top Cabinet officials led by Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and Justice Secretary Leila de Lima were present at the Palace address to the nation in the aftermath of the botched operation to capture Zulkifli bin Hir alias “Marwan,” a Malaysian member of the al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiyah allegedly behind numerous bomb attacks in the Philippines, and Filipino Basit Usman.
The United States has offered a $6-million bounty for Marwan’s head and $3 million for Usman.
Mr. Aquino declined to answer a question why Roxas and the acting PNP chief, Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, reportedly were not informed about Sunday’s operation in Maguindanao, claiming the matter was better left to a board of inquiry.
The President also cleared Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. on speculations that he financed the operation.
“That PAOCC (Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission) was involved in this is news to me. The intelligence in May last year was generated by the PNP investigation group,” Mr. Aquino said.
The President refused to comment on the actions taken by the MILF in the aftermath of what Roxas had described as a “misencounter” and which critics called a “massacre.”
He instead focused on units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines that failed to be in their respective positions during Sunday’s operation despite numerous coordination meetings.
He also refused to comment on how he felt as a fellow human being on the carnage.
“I have a problem answering that question without any evidence. Let us just wait for the results of the board of inquiry. We will determine who killed our troopers with more certainty according to the process, so that we will have sufficient evidence before we make accusations,” the President said.
Justice from MILF
Mr. Aquino said the encounter should be taken in the right context, with both the intent and the action of both sides to be judged more objectively.
He also cautioned the public against assuming that only the MILF forces were responsible for the killings of the police commandos.
“We have not established that. But I am sure the MILF will help us get justice for our troops,” Mr Aquino said, pointing out that its breakaway group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and other lawless elements were operating in the area.
Actionable intel in 2002
Asked whether he gave the go-signal for the SAF to proceed with the mission before dawn on Sunday, the President offered a roundabout answer, noting that the operations to arrest the terrorists were conducted as early as 2002 when he was a representative for Tarlac province and that actionable intelligence on Marwan and Usman had been obtained as early as 2010.
“This particular intelligence on Mamapasano, starting from May of last year, has been there but was aborted several times for various reasons. For instance, the SAF tried to apprehend the two in the third or fourth quarter last year. There was a harassment attack on a detachment of the AFP, exchange of fire with the BIFF, so they stopped. When everything settled down, SAF went forward again but they aborted again after a firefight,” he said.
When pressed to reply categorically if he gave the greenlight to the mission, the President said: “Sir, can we proceed with the mission? I don’t think I was ever asked that question. By the same token, it’s a rhetorical question. It’s like ‘can we arrest the one the courts want caught?’ Can I say no?”
“If they will have to wait for me with every action, then they will have to contend with all the other things that are occupying my attention. When are we going to catch the criminal?” the President asked.
Mr. Aquino said the least the government expected from the MILF to show sincerity in the peace process was for them to “step aside” in the areas that they control to give way to police operations and avoid misencounters.
“I expect—but they will have to discuss this among themselves. The recovery of the firearms, identification of the people who actually did the acts, recovery of personal effects and things like that, I think, will be reasonable to expect from them. But at this point in time, I am very, very confident that they will… they are studying exactly how to demonstrate their sincerity in this peace process,” he said.
The President also clarified that data from the AFP and PNP showed that Usman and Marwan were not encamped in the territory of the MILF or the BIFF or private army groups. “They were in a separate area that was closed by to all of these other encampments,” he said.
He said the SAF commandos were forced to abort because Usman or Marwan could have been alerted and prompted to seek new hideouts.
He said the SAF was deployed in the operations because the government was not going after a “cell phone snatcher.”
“Usman is reported to have a 15- to 20-member security detail made up mostly of his relatives. There are other forces in the area—MILF, BIFF, and private army groups. In this case, the go-ahead has been there for a long time. In reverse, if you know that they are there and if you have the chance to make an arrest and you don’t, there is the law concept of malfeasance in which you failed to do your job. We have been looking for this terrorist,” he said.
‘Definition of a hero’
The President said that as father of the nation, it was hard to fathom why the police force should sacrifice their lives for this mission.
“If there is any definition of a hero, that is them—those who faced risks to stop security threats; those who were wounded; those who offered their lives for peace,” said the President.
The President shared the initial information he had received on the details of the Mamasapano operation in pursuit of Marwan and Usman whom he described as “ extraordinary” criminals with a long list of arrest warrants—Usman has 8 and Marwan has no less than 2 that were issued as early as 2002.
The President said the SAF reached their target at 4 o’clock on Sunday morning. He said that the lead target, Marwan, was reportedly killed, while Usman fought back after hearing gunfire. He said there were noncombatants in the crossfire which compelled the SAF to keep the fight in close quarters to spare the innocent.
Without the element of surprise, the President said the SAF commandos were forced to retreat and rendezvous with their comrades securing their exit. “It appears that the bloody encounter occured during the withdrawal,” said the President.
The President said that the SAF director had always replied “yes, sir” to his repeated reminder on the importance of coordination with the military on the operation. The President said he was puzzled why the AFP battalion was only informed when the SAF had already made their jump-off. He said the soldiers that were part of the battalion were spread out in the area securing supply routes.
With very little time allotted in advising the support troops, the President said there was “very minimum compliance” to his order for full coordination. He was surprised that the head of the Western Mindanao Command and the 6th Infantry Division were only advised after the encounter and that the SAF troops were already in trouble.
The President also appealed for an end to speculation about what happened and just let the Board of Inquiry finish its job.