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Rebel hunter Año is new AFP chief

MANILA, Philippines (Updated) – Philippine Army commanding general Eduardo Año, a veteran intelligence officer, is the new chief of staff of the 120,000-strong Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

He replaced General Ricardo Visaya, his classmate at the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1983, in a change of command ceremony held at 2 pm on Wednesday, December 7, in Camp Aguinaldo. President Rodrigo Duterte led the ceremony.

"As your AFP chief, I will lead our transformation with fervor to realize our vision of a strong, modern and credible armed forces as source of national pride of the Filipino people," Año said in his assumption speech.  (READ: New AFP chief: Only PH flag will fly across our land, air, and seas)

Año, one of the youngest in his batch, is the 3rd among the classmates to become AFP chief. The first was General Hernando Iriberri.

Año is the natural choice to become AFP chief, the most senior among contenders who already knows the ins and outs of the institution. It was evident during the recent budget hearings when defense officials counted on Año to respond to the queries of lawmakers. 

10-month stint

But Año will have a short term of 10 months. He will retire in October 2017 when he reaches the retirement age of 56. He has a slightly longer term than his predecessor Visaya, who served for barely 6 months.

Año is a seasoned combat and intelligence officer. Before commanding the Army, Año was chief of the Intelligence Service of the AFP (ISAFP) and later commanding general of the 10th Infantry Division based in Davao region. He had also served as commander of the Army's Intelligence Security Group (ISG.)

Año earned a perfect rating of 100% when he took in 1993 the International Officer Intelligence Course at the US military training school Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He is also a graduate of the Scout Ranger Course.  

Rebel hunter

The new military boss excelled most in intelligence work, scoring some of the biggest arrests of communist leaders including the once elusive Communist Party of the Philippines chairman Benito Tiamzon whose face was unknown even to his comrades until his capture in March 2014. Tiamzon is now out of detention as part of the rebel panel holding peace talks with the Duterte administration. (READ: Tiamzons released for Oslo talks)

Año was credited for the neutralization of President Duterte's known friend, the Davao-based New People's Army (NPA) commander Leonardo Pitao alias Kumander Parago, who was killed in a military encounter in June 2015.

While some in the Duterte government, especially those in the Left, may have been against his appointment, Año had the firm backing of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and National Security Council chief Hermogenes Esperon Jr, who, as chief of staff under the Arroyo administration, worked closely with Año in the counter-insurgency campaign.

Año also led the hunt for retired Major General Jovito Palparan, who is accused of kidnapping and serious illegal detention. 

Año's rise in the military hierarchy is not without controversy.

He was allegedly involved, during his stint at ISG, in the disappearance of activist Jonas Burgos during the administration of President Gloria Arroyo when the military was held responsible for the spate of killings and disappearances of political activists. 

For this, Año's promotions were repeatedly blocked by Edita Burgos, the mother of Jonas, who tirelessly looked for her missing son if only so she could have a body to bury. Año denied any involvement in it and was eventually cleared by the courts. But the Court of Appeals ruled the military "accountable" for Burgos' enforced disappearance.

“This is one issue we always stand critical of the president.  While we acknowledge his efforts on the peace talks on his left hand, on his right hand, the likes of Aňo, are being promoted, this is a step back away from justice and peace in the country,” said Anakpawis representative Ariel “Ka Ayik” Casilao.

Anakpawis is one of the party-list organizations under the leftist Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives. 

Año beats Guerrero

A decorated soldier, Año was awarded the Philippine Legion of Honor (Degree of Officer). He received 4 Distinguished Service Stars, a Gold Cross medal for gallantry in combat, a Silver Cross Medal, 24 Bronze Cross medals for intelligence case operations, 36 Military Merit Medals, 10 Military Commendation Medals, a Silver Wing Medal, and other various awards including the PMA Cavalier Award.

Año bested Lieutenant General Rey Leonardo Guerrero, also a decorated general of PMA Class '84 who was previously believed to be a shoo-in for the post because of his closeness to President Duterte. 

Guerrero is the commanding general of the military command in Duterte's home region, the Eastern Mindanao Command (Eastmincom). He also served as commander of Task Force Davao. (READ: Duterte: I will never tinker with promotions in the military?)

Año's promotion leaves the post of Army chief vacant. Sources said AFP vice chief of staff Lieutenant General Glorioso Miranda is eyed to be the new Army commanding general. – with a report from Pia Ranada/Rappler.com