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Trillanes: Buck stops with Napeñas, not Aquino

MANILA, Philippines – Before the Senate begins its investigation into the Mamasapano clash, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV cleared President Benigno Aquino III of liability in the deadly encounter between elite cops and rebels.

The former Navy officer said that based on information he gathered “from the ground,” the President was not aware of the operational plan.

An Aquino ally, Trillañes said the highest official that should be held liable is now relieved Special Action Force (SAF) commander Getulio Napeñas, who was in charge of the operation that killed 44 SAF troopers, at least 17 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members, and at least 7 civilians in Maguindanao on January 25.

“The buck stops with Napeñas. It was his call not to coordinate early with the [military]. That’s how we operate [in the security forces]: the buck stops with the operational commander,” Trillañes said in a press briefing on Thursday, February 5.

The coup plotter-turned-lawmaker added that even assuming Aquino gave the go signal for the operation, the approval was “right” because the SAF reportedly succeeded in killing Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir or Marwan, who has a $5-million bounty on his head.

“The mission was legitimate, and in fact, it was accomplished but at a very huge cost,” said the former Navy lieutenant senior grade.  

Trillanes said that the President did not know about the details of the plan, which the SAF did not coordinate with the police hierarchy, the military, and the MILF despite the peace process between the government and the former rebel group.

“I believe the President was not aware of the operational plan. We are not in a wartime scenario. It’s either ‘go’ or ‘no go.’ The President presumes all commanders below him would know what to do.”

The senator also did not fault Aquino for keeping Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II and Philippine National Police (PNP) Officer-in-Charge Leonardo Espina in the dark.

“He has the prerogative to choose the people who need to know about the operation. If Roxas and Espina knew, would it have changed things? I doubt it because I think they will not meddle with the operational plan,” Trillanes said.

Aquino is the subject of public criticism after he admitted last week that he knew of the operation beforehand, and talked to Napeñas about it. The President though evaded questions on whether he gave the go signal for the specific plan.

The clash became even more controversial following reports that Aquino’s friend, suspended PNP chief Alan Purisima was the one calling the shots. Plans to arrest Marwan began before the Ombudsman suspended Purisima over graft allegations in December. 

On this score, Trillanes again blamed Napeñas, saying he should have followed the chain of command by informing Espina of the operation. He added that Napeñas should have only taken “advice,” not “orders” from Purisima.

“I don’t see anything wrong if Napeñas consulted Purisima as his upperclassman, and the suspended PNP chief, taking into consideration they started this project … [But] if you act like Purisima is still the chief PNP, then you are the one with the problem,” Trillanes said.

Command responsibility?

The Senate will begin its inquiry into the encounter on February 9. It is one of 8 ongoing and proposed probes into the clash that threatens to derail the government-MILF peace process after 17 years of negotiations. The peace agreement signed last year is a legacy of the Aquino administration.

Opposition senator JV Ejercito said it is best to wait for the findings of the inquiries. Yet he questioned Trillanes’ statements clearing the President.

“There is such a thing as command responsibility. The problem is President Aquino admitted during his very first address to the nation that he knew of the mission. So that will be the burden of the Palace on how they would be able to say the President has nothing to do with it,” Ejercito told Rappler in a phone interview.

Ejercito and Trillanes though were one in saying that Napeñas, military chief Gregorio Catapang Jr, and other officials should stop blaming each other in public. The two officers held separate press briefings on Wednesday. 

“It was right for Napeñas to take all the blame. I admire him for that,” Trillañes said. “But if you are going to do that, stop finger-pointing.”

Ejercito echoed the call of Senate President Franklin Drilon for the officials to speak only before investigating panels. 

“Any conflicting words relayed to media would only create confusion,” Ejercito said. “Discussing problems in coordination, failure of communications, and lack of intelligence are not only the issues here. The people’s sentiment with this finger pointing is that all of our generals are trying to hide something.”

Senator Francis Escudero made the same appeal: "Our military and police forces should rally as one in support of law enforcement, justice and peace, and not be at war with each other.”

‘President also father of Mindanao’  

Trillanes said the officers and the public must focus on finding out who killed the SAF troopers, and answer remaining questions. He said among those he will ask in the hearing are:

The senator said the inquiry will establish the timeline of events, and determine if the military also committed lapses.

“We know the AFP rescued survivors. How soon, how fast, what time, we will find out.”

Trillanes said that Aquino should ensure justice for the SAF troopers but he also asked the President’s critics to understand why the commander-in-chief cannot support calls for an all-out war against the MILF.

“An ordinary citizen can insult, curse and, say ‘All-out war.’ But as President, he sees everything. He is the father not just of angry people in Manila. He is also the father of Mindanao, whose people will be affected by all-out war.” –