MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine National Police (PNP) Special Action Force (SAF) did not violate standing coordination protocols during the highly-secretive and now-controversial “Oplan Exodus,” the Justice department said in its report on the operation that claimed the lives of at least 65.
“The SAF was not in breach of the Ceasefire Agreement. It was in Mamasapano to implement a warrant of arrest against High-Value Targets, and that kind of police action can be done even without coordination with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF),” National Bureau of Investigation -National Prosecution Service Special Investigation Team (NBI-NPS SIT) said in its report, which was made public on Wednesday, April 22.
“Oplan Exodus” saw close to 400 members of the elite SAF enter Mamasapano town in Maguindanao to neutralize high-value targets, including Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan.”
As soon as Marwan was killed, some 73 troopers – members of the 55th and 84th Special Action Companies – found themselves in clashes against members of the MILF, its breakaway group the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and private armed groups (PAGs).
Highly-secretive, the SAF kept the operation a secret from the police hierarchy, the military, the local government, and the MILF.
The Muslim rebel group, which signed a peace deal with the Philippine government last year, insists the SAF should have coordinated with them beforehand to avoid any clashes.
Under the Revised Joint AFP/PNP Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) Operational Guidelines, prior coordination “at least 24 hours prior” to an operation is necessary “in order to allow time for the evacuation of civilians and to avoid armed confrontation” between government and rebel forces. But the same provision gives exemptions to operations against high priority targets.
The NBI-NPS SIT used the same provision to argue against the MILF’s stand:
“However, given the very real possibility (or certainty, as proven by the five (5) failed Oplans before EXODUS) that operations against HVTs may be compromised if coordinated with MILF, the cited provision can admit to no other meaning than one consistent with the State being able to implement the lawful orders of its courts of justice, especially as the people involved are not ordinary criminals, but terrorists, and in the case of Marwan – an internationally wanted terrorist. HVTs, by their unique criminal category, are clearly exempt from the cited coordination protocol.”
The Justice department’s stand in its report runs counter not only to the MILF’s stand, but also to the International Monitoring Team (IMT)’s “verification report,” which said both the SAF and MILF violated standing ceasefire agreements.
Several investigative bodies had earlier discovered that the SAF did not take the ongoing peace process between the MILF and the government into consideration when planning for the operation. Neither did they receive any guidance from President Benigno Aquino III when they briefed him on the operation.
Did MILF coddle Marwan?
“The MILF insists it did not coddle Marwan, but residents in the area say otherwise. Witnesses confirm that Marwan was regularly seen in Mamasapano in the company of some members of the MILF,” the report noted.
The MILF, in its report on the incident, insists both MILF and civilians “did not know” that Marwan was living in Mamasapano. (READ: Did MILF coddle Marwan? Police, military chiefs differ)
The report noted that if the reports on the MILF coddling Marwan were true, then the 24-hour coordination window would be “clearly disadvantageous to the Government law enforcement in the area.”
“It would even be the height of cruel irony if under a subsequent peace agreement, the HVTs will have a safe haven from where they can launch terror attacks and the PNP or AFP can just helplessly look on from outside of that immune sanctuary,” the report added.
The NBI-NPS SIT also took a jab at the MILF’s supposed lack of cooperation with government’s investigations.
While the team was able to speak to MILF leaders, they failed to get a clear commitment that the rebel group would surrender its fighters should they be found to have violated the law. The PNP’s Board of Inquiry, a group formed to probe “Oplan Exodus” tried but failed to secure an in-depth interview with an MILF commander.
“The Mamasapano incident has clearly exposed how unworkable and unwieldy the mechanism in the ceasefire agreement are with respect to redress for violations thereof,” said the report, which only recommended charges for those allegedly involved in the deaths of the 55th SAC.
The team has been tasked to further probe into the rest of the deaths, including those of the 5 civilians, 18 MILF fighters, and 9 members of the 84th SAC. – Rappler.com