MANILA, Philippines – On the morning of Sunday, January 25, President Benigno Aquino III flew to Zamboanga City for a security briefing after a car bomb explosion killed two people and injured 48 people two days earlier.
That day, elite cops were engaged in a firefight with rebel forces in Mamasapano town in Maguindanao where 44 Special Action Force (SAF) troopers, 18 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters, and 3 civilians would die.
Even before his arrival in Zamboanga, Aquino had found out that a secret operation to neutralize top terrorist Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, or Marwan, had been successful.
Aquino, in his own words, told SAF troopers in Camp Bagong Diwa on January 30, “Umaga pa lang, sinabihan na ako kung ano ang naging resulta nung kay Marwan (I was told about the results [of the operation on] Marwan that morning).”
He also said he did not find out about the casualties until he was in Zamboanga already. “Habang sinasiyasat namin yung pagbobomba sa Zamboanga, dumarating ‘yung mga report (The reports came in while we were probing the bombing in Zamboanga).”
The timeline of events raised questions on that specific day, and Aquino’s role in the operation.
Aquino has denied giving the go-signal specifically on the January 25 operation. Former PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima told a Senate panel on February 12 that he is accountable for the operation, and this is why he resigned, while SAF chief Police Director Getulio Napeñas has taken full responsibility for it.
Senators probing the incident, however, doubt there was no higher leadership or approval involved in the operation. (READ: Timeline: Mamasapano clash)
In the wee hours of January 25, some 392 Special Action Force (SAF) commandos entered Mamasapano town, a known bailiwick of the MILF, to serve arrest warrants to Marwan and another terrorist, Abdul Basit Usman.
The operation resulted in a bloody clash between the MILF and SAF troopers leading to the death of a total of at least 65 people, including 44 SAF troopers. The MILF blames this on the failure of the SAF team to coordinate with them, as provided in its agreement with the government on operations in known MILF territories.
Here are 3 questions raised by Aquino’s trip to Zamboanga, on the same day of the clash:
Was Aquino really there solely for the explosion briefing?
The President’s visit to Zamboanga was kept under wraps from the media, who are usually alerted about presidential trips at least a day in advance so they can prepare for it. The Malacañang Press Corps was only informed about the trip on the day itself.
Alhough the official purpose of the trip did not seem uncharacteristic – it involved a deadly bomb blast in a major urban center in Mindanao blamed on terrorists – the announcement that the President would visit the wake of the two bombing victims struck reporters as odd, since the Chief Executive himself had expressed discomfort in going to wakes of “strangers.”
Since the date coincided with the Mamasapano clash, one could not help but think whether he was there for the Marwan operations as well.
At a January 24 noon briefing, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte was asked about the Zamboanga blast. She made no mention of a trip and instead said that “the President has been briefed on the situation on the blast” and that the President received a “full report on the incident.”
“The President has given instructions for a thorough investigation… Our lead investigators are the Philippine National Police (PNP), but the the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will support them,” she said.
By noontime the following day – Sunday, January 25 – Palace Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr said Aquino was in Zamboanga “to receive briefing and assessment from the National Police and the military.”
“He will also personally visit families of the two who died in the bombing and those injured that are currently in the hospital,” he added, another decision that surprised reporters because of his personal stance on going to wakes of people he is not acquainted with.
Also in that briefing, Coloma said there would be a 2:30 pm mass for Aquino’s mother, former President Corazon Aquino, which he said the Aquino family would attend – suggesting that the President originally planned to be back in Manila by then.
In the end, after the reports came in about the casualties, the President’s group did not return to Manila until 9 pm. While Aquino had knowledge of the succesful killing of Marwan before his flight to Zamboanga which departed Manila around 8:30 am and arrived in Zamboanga at about 10:30 am, Malacañang has insisted that Aquino flew to Zamboanga solely for the security briefing.
When did Aquino find out about the firefight?
Cabinet secretaries and government officials with Aquino on that trip have said in the Senate hearing on the Mamasapano incident that they received reports on the encounter as early as 8 am.
Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II said he received a text around 8 am – before he took the flight with the President to Zamboanga from Manila – on a “skirmish” or a “firefight,” but because he had not known of the operation that day, he said he thought it was an “ordinary course of business” and thus did not tell the President.
Roxas said there were no talks on the plane about the encounter.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who said he was informed by Western Mindanao Command chief General Rusty Guerrero by 11 am, also said he did not tell the President immediately because he said “there was no sense of urgency” at that time and everyone was focused on the bombing briefing, which was ongoing.
Roxas said it was not until 3 pm that the scope of the encounter became clearer. At that time, Roxas found out that 11 people were dead. Guerrero for his part, said it was not until 5 pm that they got a clearer picture of the magnitude of the incident. Roxas said it was also around that time that conversations with Aquino on giving additional support to the cops were discussed.
While the Cabinet members were not aware of the operation, the President was. He also said he was receiving updates while in Zamboanga. It is unclear, however, when exactly Aquino knew about the firefight and the casualties, and how much he knew – since he could have known all this ahead of everybody else.
As early as noon of January 25, Rappler received intelligence reports that 11 SAF troopers had been killed.
A source who was in Zamboanga said that there was a holding room for the President inside the Edwin Andrews Airbase where officials were seen coming in and out to brief him on “sensitive matters,” and where the Chief Executive was reportedly by himself at times.
Was he receiving updates from Purisima during his alone time?
Making the situation even more unusual is the recent statement of suspended PNP chief Purisima, who is alleged to have been the “focal person” of the operation, according to Napeñas.
Asked if it was he who told the President about the encounter, Purisma said in a Senate hearing on February 12, “May I be given time to seek clearance with the President to answer your question?”
The President accepted Purisima’s resignation when he tendered it nearly two weeks after the bloody clash.
Why did it take so long for government to announce firefight?
While there was knowledge of the firefight early in the day, the PNP did not make an official announcement until 9:15 pm, when PNP Officer-in-Charge Leonardo Espina confirmed that SAF troopers were killed in a clash with Moro rebels. (READ: Timeline: Mamasapano clash)
It is unclear what caused the delay of the announcement.
As early as 6:30 am, Espina called Guerrero for reinforcement, evidence of knowledge of the firefight. At 6 pm, local officials told reporters at least 27 SAF troopers had been killed – yet it took more than 3 hours before an official government announcement.
The delay is even more questionable considering the Cabinet security cluster was with the President throughout the day, but no meeting was held until 5 pm, even when Cabinet members – and the President, as he himself said on January 30 – supposedly had individual knowledge of what was transpiring.
In the past, operations have been disclosed upon knowledge – raising questions on whether information was being managed throughout the day by a higher-up. The next day, Roxas and Espina held a press briefing – but not until 3 pm – where they called the incident a “misencounter,” a term that would anger policemen.
The deadly operation occurred less than a year after the MILF signed a landmark peace deal with the Philippine government – hailed as one of the administration’s biggest achievements – and as lawmakers deliberate on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which seeks to create an autonomous region initially headed by the MILF.
The bill has lost some support after the incident following the public outcry over the SAF 44, but continues to be pushed by Malacañang. – Rappler.com