MANILA, Philippines – A military spokesman defended the decision of top security officials to accompany President Rodrigo Duterte in his visit to Russia despite having advance information that terrorists were planning to take over Marawi City.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said it was enough that defense officials delegated ground commanders to monitor and act on threats to Marawi City while they were in Russia.
"Regardless of where they were, they could have been elsewhere in Asia, any part of the world, when any kind of trouble erupts anywhere in the Philippines, we have ground commanders who are very competently looking after the security situation in these areas," Padilla said in a Palace news briefing on Wednesday, June 14.
"The Chief of Staff has delegated his responsibilities to these ground commanders who will act on those information. It does not necessitate that the Chief of Staff should be there; it does not necessitate that all those with stars on their shoulders must be there to direct," he added.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr, AFP chief General Eduardo Año, and Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa were part of Duterte's delegation to Russia.
A few hours after arriving in Moscow, Duterte and the security officials were informed of the military raid in Marawi City that quickly escalated into clashes with terrorists inspired by the Islamic State (ISIS). The President signed Proclamation No. 216 declaring martial law in Mindanao while still in Russia.
Officials had admitted that the military knew terrorists planned to take over Marawi City even before the Russia trip.
Major General Rolando Bautista, ground commander who ordered the Marawi raid, told Rappler they knew of the plans "2 to 3 weeks" before the start of clashes. Solicitor General Jose Calida said the military had the information since April.
Padilla said that though the military had advance information on some aspects of the attack, it still took time for the complete picture to form. Lorenzana earlier admitted there was a lack of "appreciation of intelligence."
"When this event was surfacing, the big picture was still forming... The ground commander was only starting to understand the full picture," said Padilla.
Among the things the military did not expect were the presence of Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon in Marawi City, the number of terrorists positioned there, and their sniping capability, according to Bautista.
Because of Hapilon's surprise appearance, the military decided to conduct a raid to capture him. The raid prematurely triggered the terrorists' plan to take over Marawi City. (READ: How a military raid triggered Marawi attacks)
Padilla also emphasized the Russian visit as too significant to pass up, especially given the incomplete intelligence they had at the time.
"The visit was historical, the visit to Russia. It was necessary for our highest officials to be there to show our commitment that we want to start our relationship with them, and that is only right," said the military spokesman.
Duterte was set to witness the signing of deals on defense cooperation and intelligence-sharing during the official visit. He and his delegation were also supposed to visit a military shipyard in St Petersburg.
After hearing from military officials that the Marawi situation was at a "critical" level, Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao, cut his Russia visit short, and flew back to the Philippines.
The Marawi crisis entered its 23rd day on Wednesday, June 14, as did the martial law proclamation in Mindanao.
The military has stopped giving deadlines for the end of the crisis – the last was June 12, Philippine Independence Day – but assured the public it is doing its best to do this "as soon as possible." – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.