PNP SAF troops: What misencounter?

MANILA, Philippines – They are loyal to the chain of command and will fight for the country until their death.

But for the troopers of the Philippine National Police (PNP)’s Special Action Force (SAF), there is something terribly amiss when government officials call one of the police force’s bloodiest days a “misencounter.”

“Misencounters happen when you don’t know who the other fighter is and end up shooting each other. From the very beginning, the [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] knew they were fighting government troops,” a senior police official told Rappler.

It was Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II – who also supervises the PNP – who said SAF commandos had a “misencounter” with the MILF when one unit mistakenly entered MILF area in an attempt to avoid the BIFF.

“The troops are hurt when people say it’s a misencounter,” the official said.

Forty-four of the PNP SAF’s young men died during the bloody January 25 battle against MILF and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) members in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao.

Mamasapano is a known bailiwick of the MILF, where fighters and families from both sides both live. 

SAF personnel, the PNP’s elite force, were on a mission to neutralize bomb makers Zulkifli Abdhir, better known as "Marwan,” and Abdulbasit Usman.

Everything went well at the beginning for the SAF troopers, and they were reportedly able to kill Marwan. The trouble began during their extraction operation: commandos from the 5th special action battalion, the “blockade,” were reportedly assaulted by the BIFF in the wee hours of the morning. 

The events in Mamasapano are threatening an ongoing peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF. Hearings for the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law have stalled, and two senators have since withdrawn their support for the measure. 

On Friday, January 30, the two parties signed in Malaysia a protocol for the decommissioning of rebel firearms.  

But where was the AFP? 

As details of the doomed operation slowly become clearer, more questions arose. Despite several news conferences on the clash, the chain of command for the operation remains unclear. (READ: Maguindanao bloodbath: 3 unanswered questions)

Both Roxas and PNP OIC Deputy Dir Gen Leonardo Espina said they did not know of “Oplan Exodus” beforehand. 

President Benigno Aquino III said he directly coordinated with relieved Police Director Getulio Napeñas Jr before the operation, but did not say if he gave the operation the go-signal himself.

Rappler sources indicated it was Napeñas who told Roxas it was suspended PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima who called the shots. The PNP has denied this, however, but Purisima himself has yet to address the reports.

One thing is clear: the SAF, either because of its former chief Napeñas or any other official, did not coordinate with local forces prior to the Mamasapano clash. (READ: Inside story: SAF kept military out of the loop)

As dawn was breaking, elements from the 55th company of the 5th battalion – the blockade for the mission – realized they were already surrounded by fighters from Mamasapano. 

It was Senior Inspector Ryan Pabalinas, the radio man of the 55th company, who called for help and support.

“The support elements could not get in because the 55th SAF was practically surrounded. We sent reinforcements from different approaches, but we could not penetrate the bulk of enemies until 1 pm,” Chief Superintendent Noli Taliño, acting chief of the PNP SAF, said during his eulogy for the 44 slain cops.

Military sources told Rappler the same thing. They wanted to offer fire support, but cops already trapped in firefight could not give them exact grid coordinates.

Radio silence

By the time help came, there was "radio silence" on the other end. Many of the SAF troopers deep in battle – members of the 5th special action battalion and the 84th seaborne battalion – were dead. 

But for a PNP official, the military did not do enough to help the SAF troopers. An emotional police general told Rappler that top officials could have directly communicated with MILF leaders to stop the carnage, provide air assets, or hold "persuasion fights" to intimidate the MILF and BIFF.

"They say heads will roll. But how come nobody in the military is being relieved pending investigation? How come it's only General Napeñas' head on the chopping block?" the police official said. 

The PNP is in the process of investigating the incident through its Board of Inquiry, while the MILF announced it was going to hold its own probe.

It remains unclear if the Armed Forces of the Philippines will also hold a separate probe. – Rappler.com