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MANILA, Philippines – It was pitch dark as it should be. Wearing night vision goggles, 36 elite cops of the 55th Special Action Force Company infiltrated Mamasapano, Maguindanao, dawn of Sunday, January 25.
Their mission was clear: to serve as the blocking force that will protect and ensure the exit of the first group of United States-trained Seaborne Unit of the 84th SAF company that had already entered Barangay Pidsandawan to arrest top terrorists Zulkifli bin Hir (better known as Marwan) and Abdul Basit Usman the night before.
It was shortly past 4 am when the Seaborne Unit – 37 of them – got to Marwan’s hut in Pidsandawan. They were greeted by a booby trap – a sort of improvised explosive – that had served as Marwan’s warning device and which injured two SAF commandos.
Marwan was able to draw his gun, but the SAF troopers shot back and killed him. Marwan’s security fought back, reinforced later by members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. Faced with heavy gunfire, the troops left behind Marwan’s body, taking only his finger for DNA testing.
They later sent a text message to their commanders: “Mike 1, bingo,” referring to Marwan. They also said Marwan’s body “was left behind because of the heavy volume of gunfire.” (Authorities claimed the SAF troopers indeed killed Marwan on January 25, but they are awaiting DNA results for final confirmation.)
For many hours, however, the Seaborne troopers could not be located. By mid-afternoon they were presumed dead until they were extracted by an Army platoon Sunday evening. Nine of the 37 Seaborne troopers were killed.
One of the seabornes sought for artillery support, but the military was not able to provide one because of unreliable grid coordinates.
The military fired white phosphorous into the hilly area around 6 pm shortly before the Army extracted them to safety. White phosphorous creates a loud bang that can scare away enemies, but doesn’t kill. It only serves as a marker before the explosives are fired.
That early Sunday morning, another SAF team – a blocking force of 36 troops – was waiting in a corn field about 3 kilometers away, in Barangay Tukanalipao. They were supposed to ensure the exit of the Seaborne unit and cover their path.
It was around 4:30 am when the SAF blocking force, using night vision goggles, spotted about 50 meters away a group of men in front of them. The SAF commandos took time to observe, concealing themselves until the sun rose.
It turned out the men had guns, all members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). “Nagkakitaan na may baril. Nagkaputukan na (One side saw the other armed, so we fired upon each other),” said the source. It’s not clear who fired first.
It seemed the MILF forces were alerted about the entry of the Seaborne unit that targeted Marwan. They must have thought the Seaborne unit and the blocking force were one and the same.
A relentless exchange of gunfire followed. Many more armed men came to reinforce the rebels, trapping the SAF troopers in a flat terrain of cornfields that hardly provided cover for them.
The elite cops tried to seek refuge in the cornstalks and some of the elevated portions of the soil by the river. They were well-trained and well-armed, each with 300 rounds of ammunition. But this was no match for the number of heavily armed men who surrounded them, pintakasi style (free for all). The bullets were coming from all sides.
“They could not exit because of the terrain. There was no way of getting out,” said one source.
The troops ran out of ammunition. They waited for reinforcement that never came. When asked by the Army for location details, they didn’t know what to say.
By sunset, 35 SAF commandos in Barangay Tukanalipao were slaughtered.
Only one survived to tell the tale. Police Officer 2 Christopher Lalan hid among the lilies in the river. When he found the opportunity, he ran and changed his clothes and ran again until he reached the road where the 3rd batch of SAF troopers were located.
There was a 3rd group of SAF troopers in Mamasapano that day.
About 300 SAF men remained by the roadside with the tanks of the Philippine military. Questions are now raised why they failed to reinforce their comrades.
We pieced together these events based on our interviews with police officials privy to the January 25 SAF operation. (For the military’s explanation of their failure to send reinforcement, read: Inside story: SAF kept the military out of the loop)
Rappler learned of a botched SAF operation to get Marwan in December 2014.
The SAF commandos were already in Mamasapano but had to abandon the plan because they were spotted by men believed to be MILF members. Firefight ensued and they pulled out with the help of the military that immediately responded to help them. There were no casualties.
This was confirmed by a friend of a slain SAF commando who said the latter did mention to him a cancelled December operation when they saw each other last Christmas. (READ: Slain SAF talked about December operation)
One source said they tried to get Marwan at least twice in December. Several Rappler sources said there was an advice from high-level security officials to postpone the hunt for Marwan until after the visit of Pope Francis on January 19, due to concerns about possible retaliatory attacks from Marwan’s networks.
The January 25 attack came 6 days after the Pope’s return to the Vatican.
The SAF has always been obsessed with Marwan. “Wala na kaming ginawa kung hindi Marwan (We didn’t do anything else except [those related to] Marwan),” said a SAF commando.
He laughed but he knows it’s for a good reason. “Kapag pinutol mo ang ulo, matagal ulit tutubo ng bago (If you cut the head off, it will take some time before it grows another).” Marwan, who settled in the Philippines in 2003, has been training Filipino terrorists in bomb making. (READ: Marwan’s ties that bind)
SAF reviewed its December plan and made adjustments.
For the January 25 attack, they put road security forces to make sure they would not engage the same group of MILF near their staging areas. The Seaborne team also jumped off 10 pm Saturday night, January 24, to make sure they wouldn’t lose the element of surprise.
Still, they were delayed by the difficult marshland terrain.
The PNP announced there were a total of 392 SAF troopers inside Mamasapano, an indication that it was meant to be an all-PNP operation.
They were deployed there for road security, according to two sources privy to the plan. They had to make sure that the other MIILF fighter units near the area of operation did not get involved in the firefight.
It was on that roadside that the military had positioned its tanks, too, the closest place to the encounter area where the tanks could be placed. The marshland was not “tankable.”
Some 100 of the SAF troopers supposedly tried to reinforce the 55th SAF Command, but they were unable to penetrate the defenses of the MILF. “Makapal na kasi ang MILF (We were surrounded by MILF),” said the source.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, a lot of questions are raised about the SAF operation that was kept a secret from the military, which was more familiar with the treacherous terrain of the MILF territory, and even from the top echelon of the PNP.
Sacked SAF commander Police Director Getulio Napenas Jr has taken full responsibility for the operation, but various sources have confirmed to Rappler that it was suspended PNP chief Alan Purisima who was on top of it.
A number of probes have been set – the PNP Board of Inquiry, the Senate probe, the House probe, the Ombudsman probe, and even a supposed Truth Commission.
An elite soldier who has operated in Maguindao for years lamented that many of the questions are distracting the country from the main issue. “The problem has always been: Why are there terrorists inside MILF area?” he said. It is what prompted the SAF to keep the operations a secret, but which the MILF has denied. (READ: MILF: We didn’t coddle Marwan, Usman)
The January 25 bloodbath also exposed the difficult relationship between the police and the military. At camps, cops and soldiers have been assessing the operation and blaming each other.
Soldiers are questioning the SAF strategy and how the SAF commandos failed to reinforce their own men. A military officer based in Maguindanao said the rest of the SAF commandos could have engaged the MILF on the side to disperse the rebels. This way, firepower would not have been concentrated on the trapped SAF members.
But SAF commandos speak of usually quick reinforcements from the military, such as the Marines, when they operate in other areas in Mindanao. “Bakit ‘yung Marines sa Basilan at Sulu, ang bilis mag-reinforce kahit walang coordination? Ang iniisip namin magagalit sila, pero mag-reinforce pa rin sila,” said a SAF trooper.
(Why could Marines in Basilan and Sulu quickly send reinforcement even if we didn’t coordinate with them? We’d think they would get offended, but they would still reinforce us anyway.)
Indeed, the January 25 operation may have killed a terrorist. But the cost is difficult to measure. – Rappler.com