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Senate hearings: Was there US involvement in SAF ops?

MANILA, Philippines (Updated) – Were the Americans involved in the police operation that killed at least 65 Filipinos? Did they provide intelligence? Were US drones or spy planes watching the clashes in Mamasapano, Maguindanao?

Relieved Special Action Forces (SAF) commander Getulio Napeñas was resolute in repeatedly denying any US involvement in the planning and implementation of “Oplan Exodus,” the police operation that targeted Zulkifli bin Hir or “Marwan” of the notorious Jemaah Islamiyah. Marwan was the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI's) "most wanted terrorist" who was killed along with 44 elite cops, 18 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and at least 3 civilians. 

But when Senator Francis Escudero asked how the cut finger of Marwan was immediately turned over to the FBI if there was no coordination, Napeñas consulted his counsel. 

“Your Honor, that’s the same question raised earlier wherein we requested this be taken in the executive session,” Napeñas said towards the end of Day 2 of the Senate hearing on Oplan Exodus.

White plane?

What the executive sessions revealed to senators remain unknown, but details that raise a lot of questions have cropped up before senators decided to censor themselves on the possible involvement of Americans in the country’s bloodiest security operation.

US troops have been rotating in the Philippines in the past decade to "train, advise, and assist" the Philippines in its counterterrorism campaign. In February 2012, the Philippines and the US worked together in launching the first smart bomb attack in the country. The target was also Marwan, but he managed to escape. 

"The involvement is limited to advising, assiting, training. Casualty evacuation and medical evacuation are forms of assisting. Definitely in our framework, no direct participation in any combat operations [is allowed]," said VFA Commission chief retired General Eduardo Oban explaining general principles in US-PH military cooperation. 

 In Mamasapano, Mayor Datu Benzar Ampatuan spoke of a white plane that was seen circling Tukanalipao. The senators did not ask further questions during the hearing. The mayor's description of the plane recall photos of the US Navy P-8 Poseidon that were separately snapped by photographers above Ayungin Shoal during a tense encounter between Philippine and Chinese ships in March 2014 and above the site of the Zamboanga siege in September 2013.

The military told the senators it could not deploy air assets in Mamasapano because they were elsewhere in Mindanao. The PNP doesn't have air assets either.

Oplan Exodus is also an operation led by the US-trained Seaborne Unit of the SAF. The elite unit of the PNP also receives equipment from US Special Forces through the Rewards for Justice Program.

Here are excerpts of the discussions during the 3 hearings held in the Senate:

On turning over Marwan's specimen to FBI

Day 1

Senator Sotto: Paanong nakarating sa FBI?

General Magalong: Your honor, the finger was actually around – that was Tuesday or Wednesday kasi, sir, hinahanap ko rin iyong specimen (because sir, I was also looking for the specimen). Ang sabi sa akin ni Raymond Train, “Sir, on the way na po iyong tao po natin papunta po sa GenSan dahil nandoon na po iyong dalawang FBI agents. Doon na tinanggap iyong specimen and properly received, sir, with the right receipt. (Raymond Train told me, 'Sir, our man is already on the way to GenSan because the two FBI agents are already there. That was where the specimen was received...)

The FBI later confirmed that the DNA from the specimen matched the DNA of Marwan's brother, who is incarcerated in the US. The FBI raised a $5-million bounty for Marwan’s arrest.

Senator Loren Legarda also asked why it was given to the FBI and not the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), but Napeñas asked to give his response during the executive session.

Were US troops on the ground?

Day 2

Senate President Drilon: Any US Armed Forces personnel, did they know about this operation beforehand?

Napeñas: It was already during the time that we were receiving information and report that there were casualties that I requested our contact with the US Armed Forces if they could provide us medical evacuation, your honor,” said Napeñas.

The group Suara Bangsamoro had claimed an American was among those killed in Mamasapano on January 25. It cited the account of a farmer who went to the scene of encounter and claimed he saw the body of a "blue-eyed foreigner" and even touched his nose. The US embassy in Manila denied the report

The Americans maintain a temporary facility inside the military’s nearby Camp Siongco. (READ: What is EDCA? Look at Zambo's PH-US joint operations)

On drones watching the clashes

Day 1

Senator Poe: Marami ay galing sa news report.... Mayroon daw isa doon sa Seaborne Command na kumuha ng video na nagsasabing mayroong parang drone. Ito ba'y napansin ninyo? (There are a lot coming from news reports... There was one from the Seaborne Command who took a video which showed there was a drone. Did you notice this?)

Napenas: Doon po sa pag-i-stay ko sa tactical command post, your honor, wala akong nakita na drone na lumilipad doon sa tactical command post. Iyong napabalita sa news na kinunan ng video doon mismo sa area, katulad ng sinabi ko kanina, that is approximately 10 to 11 kilometers – napakalayo po para makita ko. Wala po akong nakita. (When I was staying in the tactical command post...I didn't see any drone flying by. What was reported in the news about video being taken in the area, as I said awhile back, that is approximately 10 to 11 kilometers – too far for me to see. I didn't see anything.)

Day 2

Senator A. Cayetano: During the whole day, may nakita ka bang drones sa area? (The whole day, did you notice any drones in the area?)

Mayor Ampatuan: May lumilipad pong eroplanong puti. (There was a white airplane flying by.)

Senator Cayetano: So may drones. (So there were drones.)

Mayor Ampatuan:  Hindi po natin masabi kung drone or kung anuman. (We can't say if that was a drone or something else.)

Sen A Cayetano: Tapos ano siya, dumaan lang? Paikot-ikot? (And it just passed by? Or did it go around?)

Mayor Ampatuan: Paikot-ikot po. (It went around.)

Senator Cayetano: General Napeñas, kasama ba sa operation niyo na mayroong drones na magga-guide? (General Napeñas, was it part of your operations to have drones as guide?)

Napeñas: I am not aware doon sa drone, your honor, because I am at the –

Senator Cayetano: Did you request the US government for drones?

Napeñas: No, sir. Malayo po iyong lugar ko, nandodoon ako sa tactical command. (My location was far, I was at the tactical command.)

On foreign intelligence

Day 1

Senator Poe: Wala po bang nakikipag-ugnayan sa inyo na ibang mga foreign authorities na binibigyan kayo ng intelligence? Hindi naman masama dahil mayroon naman tayong cooperation, halimbawa. (Were there other foreign authorities coordinating with you and providing you intelligence? This isn't necessarily bad because we have cooperation, for example.) 

Napeñas: Wala na po, your Honor. Ang tumutulong sa amin sa intelligence na ito po, iyong director ng intelligence na si Police Senior Superintendent Mendez, kasama yung kanyang assistant na si Police Superintendent Monsaive. Siya po iyong laging kasama namin pag nagmi-mission planning doon sa Camp Bagong Diwa ng Bicutan, Your Honor. (No one, your Honor. The one assisting us with intelligence was the director of intelligence, Police Senior Superintendent Mendez, with his assistant, Police Superintendent Monsaive. He's our constant companion whenever we do mission-planning in Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan, Your Honor.)

Day 3

Senator Legarda: At any time, did you seek clarification or assistance from a foreign intelligence group or a conduit to such?

General Purisima: No, your Honor. I did not seek any assistance or conduit with any foreign intelligence, your Honor.

Senator Legarda: Have you been the conduit between Director Napeñas and any foreign intelligence group?

General Purisima: I have no knowledge on the conduit of Director Napeñas, your Honor.

Senator Legarda: My question is, have you been the conduit between the SAF, whether Director Napeñas or any foreign intelligence group, or any group that presented itself, providing you information from a foreign intelligence source?

General Purisima: No, your Honor. With regard to intelligence matters, the Directorate for Intelligence coordinates with other foreign counterparts, your Honor.

Senator Legarda: So you admit that there was coordination with foreign counterparts, and you’re, perhaps, the repository of information from the foreign intelligence units? You may not be officially in touch with them, but were there other groups that you were in touch with that received foreign intelligence information regarding Oplan Exodus?

I’m not accusing you. I simply want to ascertain the sources of our information because your source of intel on Marwan after 8 years is remarkable.

General Purisima: Your Honor, as a matter of principle, it’s the Directorate for Intelligence who handles every information and who processes the information, your Honor. – Rappler.com