‘Coast Guard may have violated rules of engagement’

Weapons belonging to Philippine Coast Guard personnel involved in the fatal shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman are displayed at the National Bureau of Investigation main office in Manila yesterday. The weapons were turned over by the PCG as part of an investigation into the shooting incident. EDD GUMBAN

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) personnel who shot dead a suspected Taiwanese poacher last May 9 appeared to be on the defensive but may have violated rules for dealing with such a situation, an official privy to the government’s investigation said yesterday.

“That is what the investigation has shown so far,” said the official, who declined to be named pending completion of the probe.

“While it could have been self-defense, the next questions would be: was it proper to immediately fire the shots? What are the rules of engagement? the official said. “Given that they acted in self-defense, is it justifiable to fire right away? What do the rules of engagement of the PCG say?”  

Information gathered so far by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) showed the crew of MCS-3001, a 35-meter vessel jointly manned by the PCG and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), were preventing the Taiwanese fishermen from further entering Philippine territory. One of the foreign vessels, Guang Ta Hsin-28, threatened to ram the PCG vessel several times.

The NBI based its initial findings on the incident report submitted by the PCG, and on interviews with coast guard and BFAR personnel involved, as well as ballistics testing of firearms used.

The NBI, meanwhile, presented to the media yesterday the firearms involved. The guns consist of eight M-16 rifles, six M-14 rifles and a machine gun. An official report is expected next week.

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The NBI has yet to send a team to Taiwan to examine the fishing vessels and get a statement from companions of the victim, 65-year-old Hung Shih-cheng.

The official said there were violations of some provisions in the PCG’s rules of engagement. 

For instance, the Coast Guard crew admitted having fired warning shots, which is generally not allowed under the rules. The source said the rules require Coast Guard personnel to employ other means to make foreign intruders leave Philippine territory.

Warning shots are fired only under extreme circumstances or when an intruding vessel clearly shows hostility.

In its incident report, the PCG explained that the crew of MCS-3001 fired warning shots in the air and sounded the vessel’s horn to make the fishing vessels stop.

The PCG claimed that the Taiwanese vessel revved up its engine, maneuvered backward before speeding forward, nearly hitting the MCS 3001’s stern.

The Coast Guard fired another round of warning shots but the Taiwanese vessel refused to stop and engaged the PCG-BFAR in a high-speed sea chase. They said the Taiwanese vessel repeatedly tried to sink their ship, prompting them to fire at the ship in a bid to disable it.

Reports from Taiwan, however, said the vessel showed over 50 bullet holes. Video footage of the incident showed the Coast Guard vessel chasing the Taiwanese ship.

“This proved that a chase did take place. The BFAR’s Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) 3001 vessel was chasing the Taiwanese ship. This means that the two vessels were not stationary at sea,” another source said.

“If the NBI findings would show that the PCG personnel on board the MCS 3001 were wrong, then they would have to face the consequences of their actions, but if what the PCG crew of MCS 3001 said was true, then they are vindicated,” the source added.

Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said that while the NBI cannot hold a “joint investigation” with a team of Taiwanese investigators who arrived last Thursday, both governments may cooperate to have a “parallel investigation” instead.

“We cannot prevent (Taiwan) from investigating. They can’t prevent us from investigating. So what’s going to happen is like a parallel investigation,” she told reporters after confirming receipt of an official request from Taiwanese investigators for cooperation in the probe.

De Lima said the NBI’s probe is “almost done” and what’s left is for its team to go to Taiwan to gather additional evidence.

She said she hopes the result of the investigation would help “ease the tension between the Philippines and Taiwan.”

– With Evelyn Macairan

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