PNP sticks to BOI findings as MILF report refutes ‘overkill’

Bea Cupin
PNP sticks to BOI findings as MILF report refutes ‘overkill’

Jeoffrey Maitem

Weeks after emotional calls for the MILF to answer for what happened to the SAF 44, the PNP gets its answer. Is it enough?

MANILA, Philippines – For weeks on end, Philippine National Police Officer-in-Charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina was relentless in calling for justice, decrying the “overkill” of 44 Special Action Force (SAF) troopers during a botched police operation in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao.

“I am all with the 150,000-strong members of the PNP for the support of the peace process as we are first and foremost peace keepers. However, we seek clear answers from the other party of the peace process,” Espina said at the February 9 Senate hearing on “Oplan Exodus.”

On Tuesday, March 24, Espina and the PNP got their answers. (FULL TEXT: MILF report on Mamasapano)

PNP spokesman Chief Superintendent Generoso Cerbo Jr told reporters the police force will “side with” the official statements and findings of the PNP’s Crime Lab, which performed autopsies on the 44 slain cops.

According to the Special Investigative Commission (SIC) report of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on the deadly Mamasapano clash, its fighters from the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Force (BIAF) “did not use unnecessary force” when they encountered troopers from the PNP SAF’s 55th Special Action Company (SAC).

“Reports about mutilation, beheading, and willful killing are unfounded,” the report,  made public on Tuesday, read. An MILF commander had earlier denied reports of “overkill.” 

Espina, in Senate and House hearings on the Mamasapano incident, and in interviews with media, has been adamant in demanding answers from the MILF.

The police general, who was kept out of the loop in the high-level operation, fought tears as he testified before the House of Representatives on February 11.

Ako, hindi ako makatulog kagabi noong nalaman ko ang medico-legal report. [Senior Inspectors] Tayrus [and] Pabalinas did not suffer any lethal shots. Tinamaan lang sila sa paa….Paanong namatay yan? ‘Yung isa binaril sa ulo, buhay na buhay pa ‘yung tao. ‘Yung isa hinubaran ‘nyo ng bullet proof niya,” Espina said then.

(I didn’t sleep last night when I learned about the medico-legal report. [Senior Inspectors] Tayrus [and] Pabalinas did not suffer any lethal shots. They just got shot on the foot. 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.)

In its report, the MILF argued that other groups – including the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and private armed groups (PAGs) – “could have entered the encounter site after the MILF pulled out of the area after a ceasefire was affected.”

Espina himself could not be reached for comment as of posting.

Human shields?

The 55th SAC, the 84th Seaborne’s main support effort, found themselves surrounded by enemy combatants on terrain that offered no cover. The most that the cornfields of Mamasapano could have provided was concealment, but barely.

In its report, the MILF SIC said when members of the BIAF entered the encounter site to retrieve the corpses of their comrades, they noticed that “some of the 55 SAC men’s bodies were found underneath one another as if purposely piled” and that the bodies had multiple gunshot wounds.

“They realized that from the position of the dead bodies and the number of wounds of some of the 55 SAC, that some of them had used the bodies of their dead comrades as shield during the intense fighting,” read the report.

Cerbo denied the MILF’s findings, noting that it is not part of the PNP’s “rules of engagement” to use fallen comrades as shields.

“In fact when we have operations, the emphasis is always on how to ensure the safety of your comrades. That’s why I don’t see the truth, the veracity in this kind of statement,” he said, referring to the MILF’s report.

“We will accept the statement of the MILF as it is but we have faith in our police personnel, the SAF in particular, that they behaved correctly during the Mamasapano encounter,” Cerbo added.

PNP SAF acting director Chief Superintendent Moro Lazo said it was “unthinkable” for SAF troopers to use their comrades as human shields, even in the heat of battle. 

Sources who themselves are experienced combatants said using dead comrades as human shields is a no-no, both morally and tactically.

It would not make sense for the SAF to use dead bodies as shields since this makes it easier for the enemy to spot them, the source said.

BOI, Crime Lab findings

On January 25, close to 400 members of the PNP SAF entered Mamasapano town, a known stronghold of the MILF, to neutralize international terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir or Marwan, and Filipino bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman.

After killing Marwan, 73 troopers from the 55th and 84th SACs encountered fighters from the MILF-BIAF, BIFF, and PAGs.

At least 67 died in Mamasapano, according to the PNP Board of Inquiry (BOI) report – 5 civilians, 18 MILF fighters, and 44 SAF troopers. The MILF SIC report, however, notes 17 dead from the BIAF and at least 3 civilians slain.

According to the PNP Crime Laboratory, at least 3 of the slain SAF members – Pabalinas, Police Officer 2 Oliebeth Viernes, and PO2 Amman Emula – “sustained gunshot wounds” on their torsos, which should have been covered with bulletproof vests, suggesting these had been removed prior to them being shot.

Another 6 SAF troopers “died instantly” through a single gunshot to the head.

Several other SAF troopers were “shot a close range.” One officer, Senior Inspector Renniel Tayrus, the PNP Crime Lab noted, was shot “less than 15 centimeters away.” PO2 Joseph Sagnoy, the PNP Crime Lab noted, likewise sustained close range shots by a 9 mm caliber pistol.

The rest of the deaths were attributed to sniper fire.

While admitting that its fighters had claimed the firearms of the slain members of the 55th SAC, the MILF said its fighters “did not move the dead bodies of the 55SAC” and that members of the 105th base command weren’t the last groups to enter the encounter site.

Regardless of the MILF’s report, Cerbo told reporters that the PNP will stick to the findings of their Crime Laboratory, which does not pin the blame on any specific armed group.

“What’s clear is that the PNP conducted the autopsy. We conducted the investigation on the bodies of the slain SAF troopers and that’s why our report is official with regards to how many shots were fired, where the shots hit, and whether these shots were discharged at close range or otherwise. I believe we will side with the findings of the PNP Crime Laboratory,” said Cerbo.

Cerbo refused to say whether the PNP was satisfied with the answers in the MILF report, only saying that it will serve as a “good reference material” for any improvements on the PNP’s processes, systems, and protocols.

Two other comprehensive reports on the Mamasapano clash have since been made public – the BOI’s report and the Senate committee’s draft report. Both reports pinned the blame on suspended and eventually-resigned PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima and relieved SAF commander Police Director Getulio Napeñas. 

The BOI report said Aquino “allowed” the participation of Purisima despite his suspension and “bypassed” the PNP chain of command when he dealt directly with Napeñas instead of going through Espina. 

The Senate, meanwhile, said Aquino was “ultimately liable” for the deaths in Mamasapano, and that he could have done more to save the lives of the SAF troopers. – 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.