Aquino: I talked to SAF chief before Maguindanao ops

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – President Benigno Aquino III admitted being in touch with the commander of the Special Action Forces (SAF) before the launch of an anti-terrorist operation in Maguindanao that led to the death of 44 elite cops.

Aquino said the operation has long been given a go-signal – since 2002, during the time of his predecessor – to arrest alleged Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as "Marwan,” and Abdul Basit Usman. 

But he admitted to talking to sacked SAF director Getulio Napeñas on various occasions before the operation in Maguindanao.

"I was talking directly to the SAF director," he said at a short press conference after his televised address on the Maguindanao clash on Wednesday, January 28. (READ: Full text of Aquino's address)

Aquino said he repeatedly emphasized to Napeñas to coordinate with the army. 

"To my repeated reminders about the necessity of coordination, the director of the SAF answered, 'Yes Sir.' All that he said was that operational security, or the restriction of information only to those who needed to know, was likewise necessary," he said.

"Even then, I underscored the need to alert other branches, or their respective heads; the notification must come at the appropriate time, with complete information, for them to make the necessary preparations."

Instead, he said, he was surprised to find out that the military only knew about the operation after the SAF had already entered the territory.

"If my order to ensure sufficient coordination had been complied with, then perhaps it was pushed to the limit, resulting in very minimum compliance," he said.

"In fact, I was surprised to learn that the heads of the Western Mindanao Command, or even of the 6th Infantry Division, had only been advised after the first encounter involving Marwan and Usman; the SAF forces were already retreating, and the situation had already became problematic."

Purisima's help

Aquino also admitted that he was in communication with suspended police chief Director General Alan Purisima.

"General Purisima was helping me understand the jargon. But he was involved up to the point in time, directly, that he was ordered suspended by the Ombudsman," Aquino said. Purisima, a former SAF commander himself, was suspended in December 2014 over graft charges.

The President's statements raise serious questions for two reasons: Philippine National Police (PNP) OIC Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II earlier said they were not informed about the SAF operation, and various sources have said Purisima remained in the loop even after his suspension.

“In this particular operation, [the preparations] did not reach the command group. Command group meaning me and [the Chief Directorial Staff Deputy Director General Marcelo Garbo] because you need to look into the details here,” Espina earlier said. 

Napeñas himself was sacked a day after the bloody clash and now faces a top-level PNP probe.

When asked by journalists several times to give a categorical yes or no on whether he gave the go-signal for the January 25 operations, Aquino evaded the question.  

"'Sir, can we proceed with the mission?' I don't think I was ever asked that question," the President said. "Isn't that a rhetorical question?"

 The MILF has said they fought back – despite a ceasefire with the government – in self-defense, since the SAF team did not coordinate the operation with them. The MILF lost 10 of its men in the incident described by government officials as a "misencounter."

On Sunday, January 25, some 392 SAF commandos entered Mamasapano town in Maguindanao, a known bailiwick of the MILF. They were targeting two “high value targets,” one of them Marwan. (READ: Dead or alive? Top terrorist was cops' target)

The incident occurred less than a year after the group signed a landmark peace deal with the Philippine government, and as lawmakers deliberate on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which seeks to create an autonomous region initially headed by the MILF.

Following the clashes however, some parties have expressed doubts over the fate of the BBL including Vice President Jejomar Binay. Two senators have also withdrawn as authors of the proposed BBL – Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano and Senator Joseph Victor "JV" Ejercito – because of the incident.

Long battle

Aquino also defended the peace process, saying it would honor the deaths of the SAF officers.

"If the peace process fails, if we return to the status quo, or if the violence were to worsen, is this not the exact opposite of the cause to which they gave their lives?," he said.

He said both sides have come so far to achieve lasting peace, and stopping now would mean returning to the exact same thing the government has worked to fix.

"Do we want to return to the point when communities are ready, at a moment’s notice, to flee to evacuation centers, because of the threat of an encounter? If this were to happen, who would benefit? If the peace process were derailed, how many more graves would we have to dig?," he said.

"How many more children will idolize Marwan; how many will want to grow up to be Usman; how many engineers will choose to build bombs rather than buildings?"

The President’s defense of the peace process comes as no surprise.

In 2011, the deaths of 19 soldiers in Al-Barka, Basilan, caused a public outcry and national mourning. Even back then, Aquino resisted numerous calls to declare war against the MILF and break a ceasefire that’s been in place since 2008, and instead trudged on to finalize a peace deal that would end 4 decades of fighting.

Muslim rebels have been battling for autonomy in the southern islands of the mainly Catholic Philippines since the 1970s, a conflict that had claimed tens of thousands of lives.

In March 2014, the  international community witnessed the signing of the peace pact between the government and the MILF, a process that included international parties to ensure its success namely Japan, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the nongovernment organizations Asia Foundation, Coalition Resources, and the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue.

What now?

In his speech, Aquino also said Marwan was succesfully killed, but Usman, who was located in a separate house, no longer had the same "element of surprise" after Marwan was pursued.

He also admitted to still not having the full details of the incident, adding he would wait for the report of the Board of Inquiry, formed to probe the clash.

Among the things that need clarification were whether most of the damage inflicted was by MILF and not its breakaway group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), or why Roxas and Espina were not informed about the operation.

The effect of Aquino’s speech remains to be seen.

The Senate is scheduled to look into the Maguindanao incident starting Wednesday, February 4. Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, chairperson of the Senate local government committee, has suspended scheduled hearings on the BBL following the clash.

Any delay is viewed as a setback by some parties, like Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Senate President Franklin Drilon.

In 2014, as the President reviewed the final draft of the BBL before transmitting the measure to Congress, MILF deputy chief Ghazali Jaafar told Agence France-Presse that Aquino must marshall his allies in Congress to pass the law as soon as possible.

"We accepted explanations given, but any further delays could impact on the full ratification of the deal," Jaafar said, while emphasizing that MILF fighters remained "deeply concerned" about the slowdown.

The administration’s goal is to create the autonomous region by mid-2016, when Aquino is required by the constitution to stand down. – with a report from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com