No ‘overkill’ in Mamasapano? Look at my men – Espina

Bea Cupin
No ‘overkill’ in Mamasapano? Look at my men – Espina
PNP OIC Leonardo Espina doesn't seem convinced with the claim of an MILF commander. He highlights the initial findings of the PNP's autopsy report.

MANILA, Philippines – No overkill? Just look at my men.

The office-in-charge of the Philippine National Police doesn’t seem convinced with the claims of a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commander that there was no overkill in the death of 44 Special Action Force (SAF) troopers in an extraction plan gone awry last January 25.

Doon makikita natin sa Board of Inquiry kung totoo nga ba ang sinasabi niya (We’ll find out through the BOI if what they’re saying is true),” said Police Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina when asked about MILF Commander Haramen’s claims in an exclusive interview with MindaNews.

In a February 8 interview, Haramen told MindaNews’ Carolyn Arguillas that they did not know they were going against elite police commandos in Mamasapano that day.

Asked if he was leaving doors open to the MILF’s claims, Espina told reporters on Monday, February 16: “Open to that possibility? Nangyari na nga ito sa tatlo ko eh, ‘yung iniitial na sinabi ko eh. Doon na lang eh, di ba? (Am I open to that possibility? Like I said earlier, 3 of my men were shot in the head. That alone, right?).”

Two SAF companies – the 84th Seaborne Company and the 55th Special Action Company – entered MILF and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) territory to serve an arrest warrant against bomb-makers Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as “Marwan” and Abdul Basit Usman.

Marwan was killed during the operation, but the 73 troopers from the 2 companies were caught in fire fight against MILF and BIFF fighters when they tried to pull back.

“’Yun ang sasabihin nila kasi galit sila sa amin. Kahit ano’ng sabihin nila, nagsasabi pa sila na ‘massacre,’ pero paano ang massacre eh engkwentro? May napatay sa amin, sila pa ang unang bumaril. Paanong sabihin na massacre?” Haramen said.

(They’ll say it’s overkill because they’re angry at us. They can say it’s a massacre, but how can it be a massacre when it’s an encounter? Our men died too. It was SAF who fired the first shot. How can they call it a massacre?)

Espina had been strong in his words against the MILF, accusing them of “overkill.” During a congressional hearing on the ill-fated “Oplan Exodus,” Espina, citing initial medico-legal reports, said at least 3 of his men were shot in the head.

Paanong namatay ‘yan? ‘Yung isa binaril sa ulo, buhay na buhay pa ‘yung tao. ‘Yung isa, hinubaran ‘nyo ng bullet proof [vest] niya,” Espina said in an emotional speech before the House of Representatives. (So how did they die? One of them was shot in the head when he was still very much alive. You took off the bullet proof vest of the other one)

Initial reports from the PNP indicate at least 27 of the 44 had were shot in the head.

Did MILF know they were SAF?

Haramen also denied his men “finishing off” unarmed and defenseless SAF troopers during the encounter. “Sa amin po bawal barilin ang patay at ang hindi na makalaban (It’s a no-no for us to shoot the dead or the defenseless),” he said.

The MILF commander’s statements were made before 2 videos allegedly taken during the encounter went viral on social media. A SAF battalion chief later confirmed that it was a SAF trooper who was being shot in at least one of the videos.

Espina had demanded an explanation from the MILF for what he described as deliberate decision to harm government forces.

“Clearly embellished in the uniforms of my men were SAF patches, therefore clearly showing that they belong to government which the other party knows they have continuing peace talks with… After killing all my men in the 55th, they maneuvered and joined other forces to kill more of my men in the 84th…. This was after realizing that the troops in there were with government,” said Espina.

But the MILF said it did not know they were going against government forces.

The government and the MILF in 2014 signed a peace deal that would pave the way for a new autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. 

Prior to the peace deal, the MILF and the government have had a long-standing ceasefire agreement. As part of talks, government forces are supposed to coordinate with the MILF in their operations, save for high-level law enforcement operations.

The SAF leadership chose to keep both the AFP and the MILF out of the loop for “Oplan Exodus.” Also kept in the dark were Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II and Espina.

In contrast, former PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima, who was then serving a preventive suspension order, was a “focal person” in the operation, sitting in briefings with President Benigno Aquino III.

Purisima and Aquino’s involvement in the operation are among the many questions about Mamasapano that have not yet been answered.

‘We thought it was rido’

Haramen explained they thought they were being ambushed by the fighters over “rido” or a clan war.

Pero sa mga sandaling ‘yun, hindi pa namin alam ang kalaban namin kung military o SAF kasi walang eroplano, walang bazooka, 105 (mm howitzer). Kapag military ‘yun, galing sa gobyerno, siguradong mayro’ng eroplano at saka 105. Buong akala namin grudge talaga, na mga tao na ayaw nila ang aming tropa,” Haramen said.

(During those moments, we really did not know that they were from the military of SAF because there were no airplanes, no bazookas, no 105 mm howitzers. When it’s military forces, there’s sure to be airplaines or 105 mm howitzers. We really thought it was a clan war, an attack from people with grudges against our men.)

The firefight between local fighters and the 55th Special Action Company eventually ended at around 2:30 pm, or almost 10 hours after the 84th Seaborne Company killed Marwan.

It took a few more hours before government forces could extract the 84th Seaborne Company from the area.

All but one trooper from the 55th Special Action Company – the primary blocking force of the operation – died in Mamasapano. Nine from the 84th company, meanwhile, never left Mamasapano alive.

The PNP, through its Board of Inquiry (BOI), is investigating Oplan Exodus, one of the bloodiest one-day operations in the police force’s history.

Espina said the BOI should be done with its findings in one or two weeks’ time.

The Senate, the House of Representatives, the MILF, and the justice department are also holding their own probes into the incident. Legislators from both houses, meanwhile, are calling for an independent Truth Commission to conduct a separate investigation. – Rappler.com

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.