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Inside story: SAF kept military out of the loop

Carmela Fonbuena
By the time the soldiers arrive in the area, the task waiting for them is to carry the dead in the bloodiest one-day clash in the recent history of the Philippine police
BLOODY SUNDAY. Body bags used in retrieving the remains of SAF members killed in a clash with Muslim rebels lay outside a morgue in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao. Photo by Jeoffrey Maitem/Rappler
MANILA, Philippines – A police Special Action Force (SAF) trapped in an intense firefight with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Barangay Tukanalipao, Mamasapano town on Sunday, January 25, was able to use his mobile phone to ask for artillery support from the military.

The Army 6th Infantry Division wanted to immediately provide fire support, according to 3 sources in the Armed Forces, but the cop on the phone couldn’t give the exact grid coordinates.

Saan kami puputok? Hindi nila alam kung saan sila. Ang pinakamasakit, friendly fire (Where are we going to fire? They did not know where they were. The worst that could happen was [for us to come in and commit] friendly fire),” said a military general based in Camp Aguinaldo but was privy to the operations on the ground on Sunday. 

As they are a mobile force, many SAF troops were plucked from other areas outside Maguindanao for this operation.

May procedure how to call for fire support. Sir, I’m in these grid coordinates. From my position, ito yung anggulo at ganito ang layo. Hindi puwedeng tsambahan. Mababagsakan ang bahay ng MILF,” explained another officer. (There are procedures for fire support. You have to state the coordinates, the angle. You cannot leave this to chance. Otherwise you might end up hitting the house of an MILF member.)

The military had several military detachments and hundreds of soldiers deployed around Mamasapano in Maguindanao at the time, but lack of prior information and coordination prevented them from preparing contigency plans that could have possibly stopped the carnage.

By the time the soldiers arrived in the area, the task waiting for them was to carry the dead – 44 elite cops – in the bloodiest one-day clash in the recent history of the Philippine police. 

Fatal failure

In his televised speech on Wednesday, January 28, President Benigno Aquino III scored the failure of SAF to follow his strict instructions to coordinate with the military on the ground. (READ: Aquino: I talked to SAF chief before Maguindanao ops)

Tanong po. Bakit at paano nga po kaya nangyari na malapit na sa jump off o naka-jump off na sinabihan ang AFP na malapit. Ang problem po dito, nagkalat sa ibat ibang lugar ang mga sundalong kasapi ng battalion ito na nagbabantay ng main supply route  sa lugar na ito,” the President said. (This is my question. Why was the AFP informed only when they were about to jump off or have already jumped off. The problem is the soldiers were deployed in various areas.)

Sa madaling salita, dikit na sa oras ng engkwentro ang abiso. Mahirap masabi kung nagkaroon ng sapat na panahon upang ihanda ang ayuda kung kakailanganin,” Aquino added. (In other words, they were informed too close to the encounter. It’s hard to say if there was enough time for them to prepare the necessary contingency plans.)

This failure was fatal. When the SAF asked for help, the military still had to scramble for troops deployed in various detachments.

Aquino said he was shocked to learn that the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) chief Lieutenant General Rustico Guerrero and 6th Infantry Division chief Major General Edmundo Pangilinan – who are in charge of military units on the ground – were only informed of the operation after the SAF units had already attacked the area.

The police later revealed that a total of 392 SAF troops – an entire battalion – were deployed for the operation. The overwhelming force shows it was meant to be an all-PNP operation, based on the assessment of the military officer. They were walloped inside enemy territory. (READ: Zamboanga’s heroes are Maguindanao’s fallen, too and Region in mourning: 1 in 3 slain SAF sons of Cordillera)

SAF commander Police Director Getulio Napeñas Jr has since been relieved. The operation that the top PNP echelon claimed they did not know about is now the subject of various investigations.

The Sunday bloodbath recalls the October 2011 military operation in Al-Barka, Basilan, that killed 19 of the military’s elite Special Forces (SF). The operation to arrest Abu Sayyaf leaders and an MILF commander turned into one of the Army’s worst operational blunders that resulted in a day-long clash with the MILF. (READ: Fiasco in Basilan)

MASSACRE SITE. Residents of Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, Maguindanao clean up the site where 44 SAF members died and 11 others wounded during a clash with Muslim rebels. Photo by Jeoffrey Maitem/Rappler

‘Ill-conceived plan’

The military general admitted they got upset upon learning of SAF’s secret operation inside the stronghold of the MILF, which signed a peace agreement with the Aquino administration last year. 

It’s an “ill-conceived” operation, the general said, noting how it put at great risk the relationship that was nurtured by the government with the MILF.

The MILF said its troops fired in “self defense,” suprised by the presence of government troops in full battle gear. The SAF was there to engage the BIFF but unfortunately chanced upon the MILF troops – the 105th Base Command. (READ: MILF conducts own probe into Maguindanao clash)

At the time of the request for reinforcement and fire support, the military knew very little. Was the SAF fighting with MILF troops? Or the breakaway group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which disagrees with the peace talks but still lives among their MILF relatives? Both, it turned out.

Mindanao veterans in the Army were also aware of how treacherous the terrain of Mamasapano is.

There are at least 3 units of MILF fighters based in Mamasapano. Aside from the 105th Base Command, there’s the 106th Base Command just below the encounter area and the 118th Base Command above it.

In any previous government plan to enter the area, the scenario of these 3 MILF fighter units reinforcing each other was always taken into account.

On that fateful day, military commanders knew that had they joined the battle belatedly it could have blown into a full-scale war, marking the death of the peace process.

Most intense: 8 am-10 am 

Troops of the Army 45th Infantry Battalion saw the SAF enter the encounter area around 3 am Sunday. Barangay Tukanalipao, site of the main clash, is about 15 kilometers from the highway. This estimate is similar to a police report Rappler obtained Sunday noon indicating that the SAF units entered the area at 2:30 am.

It was around 5 am when the SAF commander called General Pangilinan of the 6th infantry division to inform him that they’re inside the MILF area to hunt down high-value targets Jemmaah Islamiyah terrorist Malaysian Zulkifli Abdhir, better know as “Marwan” and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter (BIFF) bombmaker Filipino Basit Usman. (READ: Top terrorist was elite cops’ target)

About an hour later, at 6 am, the soldiers heard the firefight but did not know what was happening. It could have been rido or clan war, too, which is common in the area. 

It was reportedly about 9 am, at the height of the firefight, that PNP OIC Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina called Westmincom chief General Guerrero – his classmate at the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) – to ask for reinforcement.

The firefight was most intense between 8 am and 10 am, according to Army Brigadier General Carlito Galvez, who heads the government side of the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH). CCCH is the body composed of governent officials and MILF members tasked to maintain the ceasefire as the two parties finalize the peace process.

BATTLEZONE: A man points to reporters the site where SAF policemen and rebels first engaged in intense fighting. Photo by Jeoffrey Maitem/Rappler

‘Mainit na sila’

Galvez told Rappler that he was informed about the clash at 6:38 am and immediately convened the CCCH. He and the MILF commanders called up the forces on the ground. They could hear the intense firefight on the other line. 

Sabi ng mga MI commanders nila, ayusin niyo na ‘yan. I-pacify na yan. Pero sabi ng mga commander nila, mainit na sila,” narrated Galvez. (The MILF commanders were telling the people on the ground, fix it. Pacify them. But they were told the troops were all agitated.)

Galvez and his MILF counterparts knew then that a phone call was not enough. 

They rushed to the MILF’s 105th base command in Mamasapano but arrived there between 10 am and 11 am. The SAF had suffered their massive casualties by then, although the firefight wasn’t over. 

“It was important for us to be there physically to stop the fighting. We saw bodies on the streets,” he said.

Galvez and the rest of the CCCH members had to crawl into the battle zone to stop the firefight. “Grabe, nagmamakaawa si General Galvez,” described the military general.

Meanwhile, it was already around noon time when troops from the 45th Infantry Battalion, accompanied by the tanks of the 2nd Mechanized Brigade were able to assemble at the highway leading towards Tukanalipao.

They entered the encounter area around 3 pm to save one platoon that was trapped inside the MILF area and extract the casualties. 

TOO LATE: Military reinforcement arrive on January 25, 2015 in the town of Mamasapano. Photo by Jeoffrey Maitem/Rappler

Emotional soldiers

The military walked on eggshells in Maguindanao.

They were afraid of endangering the peace talks, the legacy of President Benigno Aquino III that they were instructed to protect.

“Very emotional kami dito. Kapag nabulilyaso ang peace talks, sino ba ang makikigyera?” an officer on the ground lamented. (We are very emotional here. If the peace talks collapse, who will be going to war?)

The military tried its best to distance itself from the police operation. When the BIFF claimed on Sunday that they exchanged gunfire with soldiers, Camp Aguinaldo was quick to issue a statement to say that it was purely a police operation.

As some camps lamented that the military could have done more to help the SAF troopers, soldiers argued it could have been worse had they rushed to the encounter area. “It’s going to be war and it will involve us,” said the military officer.

Still, the military could have fired explosives to hurt the rebels who trapped the surviving SAF troopers. But the soldiers blamed the absence of reliable grid coordinates for their failure to do so. 

Thus they resorted to firing white phosphorous. It wasn’t deadly but it was meant to scare away the MILF.

MILF’s cozy ties with the BIFF 

The bloodbath happened as Malacañang hoped to get Congress to pass the Bangsamoro law that will legislate the agreements in the peace deal signed last year.

As both camps began to fix damaged relationships, the Bangsamoro bill suffers a setback in Congress. Two senators have withdrawn their signatures of support to the Bangsamoro law while several members of the Lower House demanded MILF to be held responsible over the bloodbath. (READ: CBCP: Maguindanao clashes should not end peace talks)

  • Why kill 44 cops when there’s a ceasefire?
  • Is the MILF coddling terrorists?
  • What is MILF’s relationship with the BIFF?

ANOTHER CLASH. Children affected by the conflict in the village of Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, Maguindanao are seen with their parents waiting for the distribution of relief assistance. Photo by Jeoffrey Maitem/Rappler

What happened on Sunday showed the public the reality that security forces have long known to be a big challenge to the peace talks – the cozy relationship between some members of the MILF and the BIFF that has been responsible for a spate of bombings in Mindanao.

The 105th Base Command is the MILF unit formerly headed by Ameril Umbra Kato, the same man who opposed the talks with govenrment and helped form the BIFF.

Despite their disagreements, the MILF and the BIFF members are brothers and relatives who continue to live together. Pagdating sa ground, wala nang distinction na yan na ito BIFF, ito MILF. Magkakapatid yan,” said a military officer.

Doubts on MILF

The alleged presence of Marwan in MILF territory also casts doubt on the sincerity of the MILF, which committed to maintain peace and order in the area and was expected to help the government in hunting down terrorists, including their BIFF comrades. (READ: Real peace means the guns will have to go away)

This is where the SAF got sympathies from combat soldiers familiar with the situation in Maguindanao, who acknowledge the likely reason the police did not coordinate is to make sure Marwan will not be tipped off and escape. 

Three days after the bloodbath, President Aquino made a televised public address to defend his peace legacy in the wake of renewed calls for all-out-war against the MILF. (Read the full text of the President’s speech in Filipino and English)

As in the aftermath of Al-Barka, the President once again stood his ground for peace. But he knows too well the landscape has changed. – Rappler.com