MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The commander of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) has been administratively relieved pending an investigation into a "misencounter" that resulted in the death of 44 policemen in Maguindanao.
Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II made the announcement at a news briefing in Camp Crame on Tuesday, January 27.
Roxas said Police Director Getulio Napeñas Jr has been recalled to the PNP headquarters in Camp Crame while the PNP investigates the circumstances surrounding the incident.
Both Roxas and PNP OIC Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina said they were not made aware of the PNP SAF operation. "The PNP command group did not know," said Roxas.
Napeñas had assisted government officials – Roxas, Espina, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, and Armed Forces Chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr – when they flew to Maguindanao on Monday, January 26.
Napeñas’ deputy, Chief Superintendent Noli Taliño, will serve as SAF OIC, said Roxas.
On Sunday, January 25, some 392 SAF commandos entered Mamasapano town in Maguindanao, a known bailiwick of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). They were targeting two “high value targets,” one of them alleged Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as "Marwan.” (READ: Dead or alive? Top terrorist was cops' target)
Marwan was reportedly killed during the ensuing firefight, although Roxas emphasized these were only preliminary reports since no body has been recovered.
The “high possibility” of Marwan’s death came at a high price for the PNP. Roxas confirmed 44 SAF personnel died, 12 were injured, while 336 are accounted for.
Roxas, repeating an earlier statement, said members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) attacked SAF personnel. The SAF commandos then had a “misencounter” with the MILF when one unit mistakenly entered MILF area in an attempt to avoid BIFF territory.
Top police generals led by Directorate for Integrated Police Operations (DIPO) Western Mindanao head Police Director Edgardo Ingking will form the “Board of Inquiry” to find out if there were any operational lapses in the Maguindanao “misencounter.”
Joining Ingking are Criminal Investigation and Detection Group chief Police Director Benjamin Magalong and Directorate for Research and Development head Chief Superintendent Catalino Rodriguez Jr, who used to be Northern Mindanao region police chief.
The Board of Inquiry will check, among other things, possible operational lapses.
The Philippine government is on the last stage of a peace deal with the MILF, which would lead to the establishment of a new autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao.
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.
Amid calls to abandon the peace process, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) called for sobriety and said the incident shouldn't stop the peace process that aims to end a 4-decade-old secessionist movement.