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AFP, PNP: Return of SAF arms ‘good first step’

Bea Cupin
AFP, PNP: Return of SAF arms ‘good first step’
'This is an important first step not just in restoring the trust between the PNP and the MILF but in restoring trust between the MILF and the Filipino people,' says Interior Secretary Mar Roxas

MANILA, Philippines – It’s a good first step towards fixing a relationship strained by an encounter that killed at least 65 people, including 44 elite cops, and put a long-awaited peace deal in danger.

Officials from the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Thursday, February 19, welcomed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)’s return of the PNP Special Action Force (SAF)’s 16 firearms but added it was “only the beginning.”

On Thursday, PNP and AFP officials, alongside Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin presented to media the 16 firearms turned over by the MILF to the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities.

A turnover ceremony was held the day prior at Camp Siongco of the 6th Infantry Division in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao.

FIRST 16. Some of the 16 SAF firearms returned to the PNP by the MILF. Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

“The return of these firearms is a welcome development in the PNP. It is a beginning and we expect that this continues until all firearms are returned to us. All the personal belongings of our people [should] be returned to us –– uniforms and all the belongings that rightfully belong to fallen heroes,” said PNP Office-in-Charge Police Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina. (READ: Gov’t, MILF must do more to regain trust)

Espina has been among the most vocal in demanding that the MILF return the firearms and personal belongings seized from SAF troopers during a bloody January 25 encounter in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao.

Two SAF companies entered the know MILF and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) bailiwick to neutralize Jemaah Islamiyah member Zulkifli bin Hir (alias “Marwan”).

The elite cops killed Marwan but 44 of its troopers died in Mamasapano following an encounter with MILF and BIFF fighters. All except one of the 55th Special Action Company died during the day-long firefight while 9 of the SAF’s US-trained 84th Seaborne Company died.

The police general, in speeches during legislative probes, cried foul over what he labeled an “overkill” of the SAF troopers by the MILF and other fighters. It’s a claim the MILF has denied.

Restoring trust

For Roxas, the return of the firearms is only the beginning.

While emphasizing that the PNP has yet to determine how many arms are with the MILF, the BIFF or private armed groups, Roxas said the MILF, as the government’s “partners in peace,” should help in recovering the still lost equipment and personal items.

“When you talk about the other things the MILF can do [in the recovering of firearms], you have to put it in context. We’re in the middle of a peace process. In all peace talks, trust is an important factor. This is an important first step not just in restoring the trust between the PNP and the MILF but in restoring trust between the MILF and the Filipino people,” added Roxas.

The MILF in 2014 signed a peace deal with the government that paves the way towards a new autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. The deal is hoped to end decades of conflict in the the area.

But the Mamasapano encounter has cast doubts over the process, with some officials accusing the MILF of being insincere. Two senators have since withdrawn their support of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, while the House of Representatives has put hearings on the proposed law on hold.

AFP chief General Gregorio Capatang Jr., who on Wednesday flew to Cotabato to receive the arms, said the AFP likewise “welcomes the gesture of the MILF.”

“We view this gesture as a sign that our brothers in the MILF want to sustain the gains and progress we have sustained through the years. But we are urging our MILF brothers to return all the firearms and personal belongings that were taken from our SAF brothers during the encounter,” he said.

How many left?

The PNP has yet to release its inventory of the arms lost during the Mamasapano encounter. “We do not know whether the arms are with the MILF, the BIFF, with civilians or with private armed groups… but the MILF should help in recovering these arms,” said Roxas.

Roxas also emphasized that the PNP was not merely waiting for the MILF to return the lost firearms and that “parallel efforts” through civil society, the local government unit, and civilians are also underway.

“But you also have to understand that after the encounter in Mamasapano… you can imagine how tensions and anxieties are very high in that area. We’re careful because we don’t want people to misinterpret [the government’s actions],” said Roxas.

Espina said the PNP is still in the process of double checking the serial numbers of the arms returned to the PNP with the inventory of the SAF.

Some of the 16 firearms returned were incomplete or had missing parts. – Rappler.com

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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.