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MANILA, Philippines – Less than two weeks ago, security officials could not directly say who informed President Benigno Aquino III about the Mamasapano encounter but now, they recalled their communications with him on the morning of the fateful January 25 encounter.
Senators were surprised with the detailed narration of civilian security officials, and military and police officers in the hearing on Monday, February 23, saying the change was an inconsistency at best, and lying under oath at worst.
Senators first asked Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP) generals in a hearing last February 12 who informed Aquino of the clash, and when. Watch:
Back then, Roxas could not answer the question, and said he has to first “reconstruct” the text messages sent to him on the day of the encounter on January 25, as this was the basis of the information he got.
Roxas said then that he only found out about the gravity of the encounter “late in the afternoon,” starting at 3 pm.
Western Mindanao Command chief Lieutenant General Rustico Guerrero also said in the February 12 hearing that he briefed Aquino about the clash in the afternoon. On January 25, Aquino was with Guerrero, Roxas, Gazmin and military chief Gregorio Catapang Jr for a security briefing in Zamboanga on a bomb blast two days ago.
“I was told to brief on the situation at central Mindanao at around 1700 or 5 pm, Your Honor,” Guerrero said in the previous hearing.
Yet in the hearing on Monday, Roxas and Guerrero said they informed Aquino of the operation much earlier.
Roxas said that at 7:43 am of January 25, he received a text message from the PNP director of intelligence forwarding the SMS of then Special Action Force (SAF) Commander Getulio Napeñas to senior PNP officers.
The interior secretary read the text message, which said that the SAF “neutralized” Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan but his body was left behind due to “heavy volume of fire.”
“There was heavy firefight and some troops suffered casualties. Extraction ongoing and support from the AFP was requested,” Roxas quoted Napeñas’ SMS.
Roxas said, “Shortly after, I forwarded the same message to the President at 8:09 am. I added on top of it, ‘Sir (meaning to the President), just received this and getting more details.’”
The secretary said that “in the course of the day,” Aquino verbally asked him in Zamboanga what happened, as the President was getting conflicting reports from the ground. Specifically, Roxas said the President wanted to know how come the SAF troopers retreated if there were supposedly 160 of them, and only 20 “hostile forces.”
Upon questioning from Senator Francis Escudero, Guerrero also said he got to talk to Aquino in Zamboanga at “about 11 am or before noon” of January 25.
Guerrero said: “I was actually called to a small room together with the Secretary of National Defense, and the Secretary of Interior, and I was asked about what’s happening in my area in central Mindanao. I told him I was called by [PNP] General [Leonardo] Espina and I was informed about what’s happening so I already informed the President that I already directed the 6th Infantry Division to provide the necessary support on the ground.”
Escudero asked Guerrero if there was urgency in his briefing to Aquino.
Guerrero replied: “I cannot say what the President’s reaction was but the report I received then from the ground was very vague. I only knew there was an encounter, and that we needed to give support. We had no picture of the extent of the encounter or even how many SAF [troopers] to support. I informed the President that I already gave guidance and order to support.”
The Monday inquiry is the 4th Senate hearing into the encounter that killed 44 SAF troopers, 18 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and 3 civilians. The SAF troopers were on a mission to arrest Marwan and Filipino bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman.
Senators are building a timeline of events amid allegations that the AFP’s delayed response to requests for reinforcement was a factor in the heavy death toll.
They are also trying to answer questions on the role Aquino played in the mission after the commander-in-chief admitted that he knew of the operation beforehand while Roxas, Gazmin, Catapang and PNP officer in charge Leonardo Espina were kept out of the loop. (READ: Did the President lie? Text messages contradict Aquino)
Aquino’s close friend, resigned PNP chief Alan Purisima, admitted issuing directives to Napeñas. Purisima said he informed Aquino of the operation at 5:45 am. (READ: Mamasapano: Text messages show Aquino knew details)
‘Benefit of the doubt’
Senate public order committee chairperson Grace Poe is willing to give the security officials a chance to explain the changes in their testimony.
“Maybe sometimes when they’re already swamped with so much information or overtaken by events, we want to give them the benefit of the doubt,” said Poe.
“But there are inconsistencies with some of the statements of our resource persons, that’s why we have to reaffirm and ask them again. Instinctively, you should be able to know. It’s an occurrence. When something big happens, you know where you are at that moment,” Poe told reporters after the hearing.
Opposition Senator JV Ejercito said he was “not happy” with the sudden turn of events.
“In the last hearing, when the question of when the President was informed was asked, nagtitinginan sila (they were exchanging glances). They said it was only in the afternoon, 3 pm to 5 pm. In executive session, Purisima said 5 am. Then earlier today, they said it was early morning. So that inconsistency alone, what’s with that? They lied under oath? They are covering for someone?”
Ejercito urged the officials to tell the truth, saying they owed this to the slain SAF commandos. He made the same call to Aquino, who has yet to release his own detailed version of events.
“I think the President, if he tells the truth, if he just admits the mistake and be honest about it, our countrymen are forgiving and will understand him. The operation had good intentions: to get terrorists. There was a debacle but the more they evade this, the worse it gets. Their facts and statements are clashing,” Ejercito said.
The Senate will hold its final hearing into the issue on Tuesday. – Rappler.com