MANILA, Philippines – They were in the midst of heavy firefight during the Zamboanga siege of 2013, the men and women of the 84th seaborne battalion and the 55th company of the 5th special action battalion of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Special Action Force (SAF).
“Kilala ko 'yung mga tauhang iyon kasi kasama [ko sila] sa Zamboanga (I knew those people because I was with them in Zamboanga),” National Capital Region Police Chief Police Director Carmelo Valmoria told reporters in Camp Crame on Monday, January 26.
Valmoria, former SAF commander, is one of the PNP’s top brass who knew the men and women in the Maguindanao operation the most.
The police general headed the elite force in 2013 and led the SAF’s 84th seaborne battalion and the 55th company during the 2013 Zamboanga siege. At least two SAF personnel died during that month-long siege.
He also led SAF commandos who secured Tacloban City in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), also in 2013.
On Monday, January 26, more than 24 hours since the Maguindanao encounter began, it remained unclear just how many PNP SAF commandos were deployed, how many perished, and how many survived. (READ: PNP recovers 49 bodies of slain cops)
“There are conflicting reports sa bilang ng mga namatay dito sa engkwentro na ito…. Ang masasabi ko lang, marami. Whether it's plus one, minus one, o anuman, siguro kapag opisyal na, doon na lang ako magsasalita doon sa aktwal na bilang,” said Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II at the sidelines of PNP’s 24th anniversary celebrations in Camp Crame.
(There are conflicting reports with regards to how many died as a result of the encounter. What I can say is that many died. Whether it's plus one, minus one, I’ll only speak when the count is official.)
The PNP SAF commandos were tasked to arrest two “high value targets” early Sunday morning when they ran into the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) camp, in search for members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). (READ: Dead or alive? Top terrorist was cops' target)
The MILF and the Philippines government have recently inked a peace deal, which the BIFF opposed.
The SAF is the PNP’s “rapid deployment force” typically sent in times of distress. The SAF’s functions include counter terrorism, hostage rescue, search and rescue, civil disturbance management, and VIP security operations.
“May experience 'yung mga iyon, nagkataon lang na ganoon ang nangyari. Lumaban talaga [sila],” Valmoria said. (The troops in Maguindanao are experienced. It just so happened that the encounter unfolded that way. They fought hard.)
The details surrounding the encounter remain hazy, as Roxas, PNP Office-in-Charge Police Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, Defense chief Voltaire Gazmin and Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief-of-Staff General Gregorio Catapang fly to Maguindanao to asses the situation better.