FULL TEXT: Aquino defends SAF operation in Maguindanao


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'Like so many others, I have many questions surrounding the incident, and I expect the board of inquiry to uncover the truth behind this incident'

I stand before you today to report on what we know about the incident in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, last Saturday and Sunday. I do this not because I wish to preempt the board of inquiry tasked to uncover the entire truth, but because you have a right to know what we know at this point.

On Saturday, January 24, a group composed of members of our Philippine National Police’s Special Action Force headed to Barangay Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, Maguindanao. Their mission was to serve outstanding arrest warrants to two notorious terrorists who have long been pursued by authorities, namely Abdulbasit Usman and Zulkipli Bin Hir, alias Abu Marwan. According to the most recent report of the NDRRMC, 44 of our policemen died in the process of fulfilling their duties, while 16 others were injured, including 3 civilians.

As President and as father of this country, I am greatly saddened that our policemen had to lay down their lives for this mission. Without question, these people are heroes; they who willingly put themselves in danger to address threats to our security; they who were wounded; they who gave their lives in the name of peace. To honor those who perished, I am declaring a National Day of Mourning to symbolize the sorrow and empathy of our entire country.

Marwan and Usman are not common criminals. There is a long string of outstanding warrants for their arrest. There are no less than 8 outstanding warrants against Usman alone, while there are no less than 2 for Marwan. One of the earliest warrants was issued in 2002, which means that they were already being pursued when I was a member of Congress. Allow me to clarify: When a warrant is issued against an individual, all officers of the law are obligated to serve it. This is precisely why, since long ago, our security sector, including the AFP, PNP, and NBI, has undertaken multiple operations to capture Marwan, Usman, and other terrorists.

These agencies are not always required to obtain my approval for each and every one of their operations, because it would be impractical for them to wait for my clearance before proceeding. My duty: to make certain that they are carrying out their responsibilities. There are times when certain matters are elevated to my desk so that I may give guidance, give a more holistic view of the situation, or explain its wider implications.

A few examples of this are: our response to rogue MNLF elements in Zamboanga, the capture of individuals high on our list of Most Wanted Persons, and the assault on our peacekeepers in Golan Heights. In the Golan Heights case, the decision of whether or not to depart could not simply be left to our battalion commander there. As the person primarily responsible for foreign relations, I had to be consulted to make certain that we are likewise upholding our obligations to the United Nations.

Marwan is part of the Central Committee of the Jemaah Islamiya, which was responsible for the Bali bombing in Indonesia. In this incident, two consecutive blasts occurred, which meant that first responders and individuals who had not left the area were also affected. 202 people died, and Marwan was a suspect in this case. In Cagayan de Oro in 2012, Marwan attempted to replicate this modus; the second bomb did not explode, as it was discovered ahead of time, yet 2 people still died as a result of this incident. There are allegations that, in 2006, Marwan, along with Umbra Kato, led a plot to plant a bomb to assassinate then-Governor of Maguindanao, Andal Ampatuan. Marwan’s membership in international terrorist networks means that he has the capacity to acquire the knowledge, the equipment, the funding, and the necessary safe havens for his fellow terrorists. This is why he was considered the primary target of the operation. Usman, on the other hand, is connected to nine bombing incidents in Mindanao. He is the primary accused in the bombing in General Santos City in 2002, in which 15 people died, and 60 were injured.

Together with another terrorist named Mawiyah, Marwan and Usman committed several acts of terrorism in various parts of Mindanao. They are also both known bomb-making trainers. There are reports that they run factories of improvised explosive devices, which they sell to fellow terrorists. They have injured and killed many people, and they continue to threaten the safety of our citizens as long as they roam free.

I emphasize: It is stated in Article II, Section 4 of our Constitution that “The primary duty of government is to serve and protect the people.” This is why, when our police force uncovered the precise location of Marwan and Usman, they decided to take action and serve the warrants of the two individuals. Our authorities gathered actionable intelligence. They found not just the region, the province, or the municipality, but the very house in which the two were hiding. Not acting on this knowledge would make it possible for Marwan and Usman to escape, which would mean that the long process of gathering information would have to start all over again.

It was past 4 in the morning when the SAF reached the stronghold in which Marwan and Usman were hiding. In the encounter that followed, the primary target, Marwan, was allegedly killed. Upon hearing the gunshots, Usman and his cohorts fought back. There were also non-combatants spotted in the houses in which Marwan and Usman were located; it was necessary for our forces to close the distance to avoid involving the innocent. Marwan’s house was the first attacked; Usman responded, and the element of surprise, which was necessary to avoid detection, was lost. This is why the SAF decided to withdraw and rendezvous with their companions, who were securing their exit route from the area where the encounter occurred. It appears that it was during this withdrawal when the bloodiest part of the clash happened.

Like so many others, I have many questions surrounding the incident, and I expect the board of inquiry to uncover the truth behind this incident. In the briefings the PNP gave me about the continuing operations against Marwan and Usman, I repeated countless times the need for proper, sufficient, and timely coordination. The terrain covered by this operation is complicated: muddy, with swampland, and there is even the need for our SAF to cross a river to reach their destination. There are also many other forces scattered in the area: the BIFF, MILF, and even a Private Armed Group. Even if the MILF and BIFF now constitute two different groups, many of them are related by blood or by affinity. Strangers cannot just enter their territory. Our troops needed to enter quietly and carefully; otherwise, their targets may have been alerted.

It is precisely because the forces of the SAF were much smaller than the surrounding numbers who could intervene that it was important for the Armed Forces to be ready to position their troops, resources, and equipment like cannons or artillery, should our police require support. They needed sufficient notice to place their troops where they would be of greatest assistance. In these kinds of encounters, had the assistance of the Armed Forces been necessary, they would not have been able to mobilize and arrive at a moment’s notice, especially because the members of the 6th Infantry Division, who were nearest to the action, have other duties.

To my repeated reminders about the necessity of coordination, the director of the SAF answered, “Yes Sir.” All that he said was that operational security, or the restriction of information only to those who needed to know, was likewise necessary. Even then, I underscored the need to alert other branches, or their respective heads; the notification must come at the appropriate time, with complete information, for them to make the necessary preparations.

I wonder: how and why could it have happened that the notification of the AFP battalions close to the operation only came close to the time of jump-off, or even after our forces had already jumped-off? The problem there was that the soldiers who were members of the battalion assigned to guard the main supply routes to this location were scattered in different areas. In simple language, the notification to the AFP came too close to the time of the encounter, thus making it difficult to determine if they were given enough time to prepare, had their assistance been necessary. If my order to ensure sufficient coordination had been complied with, then perhaps it was pushed to the limit, resulting in very minimum compliance. In fact, I was surprised to learn that the heads of the Western Mindanao Command, or even of the 6th Infantry Division, had only been advised after the first encounter involving Marwan and Usman; the SAF forces were already retreating, and the situation had already became problematic.

Now, on the MILF: We have already made such great strides because we trusted one another. We have already proven that we can work together: in 2014, a Japanese national was rescued in Maguindanao; in that same year, we were able to prevent the explosion of a bomb in Maguindanao. I have also read the statement of Chairman Al Haj Murad about the Mamapasano incident; the MILF’s formation of a Special Investigative Commission in order to determine the details of the incident constitutes a good first step. I am hopeful that the MILF will show, in the soonest possible time, even more concrete evidence of their solidarity in the pursuit of peace, towards the pursuit of truth, and the accountability of those responsible.

Let us also avoid spreading rumors and fueling speculation about the incident. The Bible itself says: The truth shall set us free. There is already a board of inquiry assigned to uncover the whole truth. Let us wait for the results of their findings.

We have already come such a long way in our quest to realize the peace that we have long desired for Muslim Mindanao. All sides exhibited great trust to reach this point. The incident in Mampasano has already given rise to those who want to take advantage of this tragedy to undermine that trust; they wish to derail the peace process. There are even some already calling for a halt to the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

This should not happen. The success of the entire peace process is contingent on this law. If this law is kept from being passed at the soonest possible time, the peace process will be derailed; the status quo will remain. If that happens, we cannot hope for anything but the same results: Citizens who take to the mountains after losing hope; individuals kept from gaining justice who instead choose to exact violence on their fellowmen. It would be as if we helped Marwan and Usman to reach their goals. Do we want to return to the point when communities are ready, at a moment’s notice, to flee to evacuation centers, because of the threat of an encounter? If this were to happen, who would benefit? If the peace process were derailed, how many more graves would we have to dig? How many more children will idolize Marwan; how many will want to grow up to be Usman; how many engineers will choose to build bombs rather than buildings?

Let us also remember: The members of the SAF lost their lives while fulfilling their duty to maintain the peace. If the peace process fails, if we return to the status quo, or if the violence were to worsen, is this not the exact opposite of the cause to which they gave their lives?

Is it not true: In facing this challenge, in order to realize peace, should we not link arms more tightly, and pursue with greater determination the next steps in the process, like passing the BBL; forming the Bangsamoro Transition Authority; widening opportunities for all; and correcting a political system where a few benefit to the detriment of the majority of our countrymen?

To the families of the SAF members who perished: I fully sympathize with your grief. I know that this grief may be accompanied by worries about your future, especially if your loved ones who sacrificed their lives were also your breadwinners. I guarantee: The state will give the maximum assistance it can, within the limits of the laws and rules. On this occasion, I also take the opportunity to appeal to the public: If possible let us extend our utmost support to the bereaved, and maximize the help we can give to the families of those who fell, in recognition of the valor of these heroes who gave their lives for the realization of the peace we have long desired.

In the face of our grief, in the face of the desire of some to exact revenge, in the face of the threats to destroy the trust we have forged over such a long period of time, today, our ability to show compassion to our fellowmen faces a great test. This is why, to all of my countrymen who desire peace, from lawmakers, to the members of the uniformed forces, to the leaders of the MILF, to our countrymen in the Bangsamoro, and to every decent Filipino: Let us show what heights a country united by a single aspiration can reach. Let us ensure that the ultimate sacrifice made by some members of the SAF does not go to waste. We will gain justice, in time, through the right processes, and without letting go of our dreams to realize a widespread and lasting peace.

Thank you, and good evening to us all. – Rappler.com

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