Espina stands firm on SAF 44 'overkill'

CAVITE, Philippines – The emotions may have waned nearly two months later, but Police Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, officer-in-charge of the Philippine National Police (PNP), insists the death of some police commandos in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao, was an “overkill.”

Sinabi ko nga eh, medico-legal report 'yun. Yung pinag-basehan ko doon, medico legal report. Ni-report yun ng isang doktor, yung nag-o-autopsy,” Espina told reporters on March 26, at the sidelines of the Philippine National Police Academy (PNPA) graduation

(Like I’ve said, it’s a medico-legal report. That’s where I based my statements on, the medico-legal report. It’s a report from a doctor, the one who performed the autopsy.)

Espina was reacting to a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) report on a botched January 25 police operation in Mamasapano town that claimed the lives of at least 67 people. [Editor’s note: The MILF report says 3 civilians and 17 MILF fighters were killed. The PNP Board of Inquiry (BOI)’s report states 5 civilians and 18 MILF fighters were killed]

On January 25, close to 400 Special Action Force (SAF) troopers converged in Mamasapano to neutralize two terrorists. They were able to kill Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir or “Marwan,” but as they withdrew, they encountered fighters from the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, its breakaway group the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and private armed groups (PAGs).

It’s a clash that has endangered long-awaited peace deal between the government and the MILF, and exposed weaknesses in the PNP.

‘No unnecessary force’

A month ago, Espina could barely fight back tears as he demanded explanations from the MILF for the "overkill" of his men.

Two SAF companies – the 84th Seaborne Company and the 55th Special Action Company (SAC) – were involved in the clash with Muslim rebels. Nine from the Seaborne were killed while all but one of the 36 troopers from the 55th SAC died.

Citing reports from the PNP Crime Laboratory, Espina then said several SAF troopers who died suffered gunshot wounds on their torsos, which should have been protected by bullet proof vests. The gunshots suggest the vests of SAF troopers were removed before they were shot.

Some police commandos were also found to have been shot at close range, while most died due to sniper fire. (READ: Espina turns emotional over SAF 44 'overkill')

The MILF said its fighters, despite having a huge advantage against the 55th SAC, "did not use unnecessary force or employ any method of warfare that violated International Humanitarian Law. Rather, they faced their adversaries employing the weapons that were available to them, and using their advantages to the fullest."

The MILF also offered an explanation to the multiple gunshot wounds sustained by the 55th SAC:

Espina refused to comment on the report itself, saying it would be more "prudent" to leave it to investigative agencies. But he took exception to claims that the 55th SAC used their comrades as human shields.

"That has to be validated. And I don’t think my men would do that…na gagamitin mo, ikaw buddy ko, kasama mo sa hanap-buhay, para kayong magkakapatid [tapos] gagamitin kitang shield? (To use your buddy, a person you work with, someone who’s like your brother as a shield?)" said the police general.

The MILF noted in its report that other armed groups may have been able to enter the encounter site of the 55th SAC, since their fighters had pulled out at around 1:20 pm on January 25, after they were told a ceasefire was in place.

Espina leaves it up to other agencies such as the Department of Justice and the Ombudsman, to determine the appropriate criminal and administrative cases related to the clash.

"Makikita naman yun eh, kung sino man ang mag-rerender ng judgement. [Makikita niyo] kung sino ang tama at sino ang mali (You’ll see it there, those who’ll render judgement will see it there. You’ll see who’s right and who’s wrong)," he added.

Where are our guns?

The MILF said in its report that the BIAF, while extricating the bodies of their dead comrades, also took the opportunity to take "war booties" from the slain SAF commandos "when it was apparent that the enemies had already died."

This was justified and "nothing extraordinary," among armed non-state actors. The MILF noted, however, that "in the interest of peace, these firearms have been returned to the government."

The rebel group denied taking the personal items of the SAF troopers, once again emphasizing that others were also able to enter the encounter area after the clash, including civilians.

At least 16 firearms have been returned to the PNP but Espina said it wasn’t enough. “'Yun nga ang dati kong sinasabi, dapat isauli nila 'yun sa amin. Amin 'yun eh. Kausap kita sa peace talks. Eh di isauli mo. 16 na firearms, yung isa kalahati, ilan yung nawala [tapos] 44 yung namatay,” said Espina.

(That’s what I’ve been saying. They should return those firearms. They are ours. Aren’t we partners in the peace talks? Then return the arms. 16 have been returned but one of them, only half remained. How many firearms were lost? And 44 died.)

Espina said the PNP is tapping other channels to retrieve more of the lost firearms and personal effects. – Rappler.com