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Poe stands by report SAF troops murdered

Christina Mendez - The Philippine Star

Napeñas slams MILF ‘cover-up’  

MANILA, Philippines - The Senate is standing by its findings on the Mamasapano incident, despite the release of the report of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which came to different conclusions.

Sen. Grace Poe, chairman of the Senate committee that investigated the Mamasapano incident, said yesterday 20 senators supported the chamber’s 129-page report.

Amendments can be proposed and may be considered once session resumes in May, she said.

“How the MILF report should be treated, considering certain findings of fact which are contradictory to a portion of ours, shall also be discussed by the joint committees,” she said.

Poe noted that the reports of the Senate and the MILF differ, particularly on the nature and gravity of the killing of 44 Special Action Force (SAF) policemen in Mamasapano, Maguindanao on Jan. 25.

In its report, the MILF justified shooting at the SAF policemen, insisting the commandos fired first and broke the ceasefire agreement.

Poe said the divergent views might have been a result of the Senate and MILF’s access to different sets of witnesses.

Given the differing findings of fact, it is more imperative for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to expedite and finish its investigation, identify the culpable individuals and prosecute them, Poe added.

In the Senate report, Poe maintained the Mamasapano incident was “clearly a massacre,” not a so-called encounter or misencounter.

The report added the MILF, the guerrillas of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and other armed groups “murdered and robbed the 44 PNP-SAF policemen.”

The MILF’s special investigating team has justified the killing of policemen, saying they failed to coordinate their operation and that the firefight started after the SAF troops attacked them.

“Without the coordination, the gun battle was inevitable when two armed groups crossed paths, especially after the BIAF was fired upon by the PNP-SAF,” the MILF special report read, referring to its armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces.

The MILF report said its fighters attributed their victory over the SAF men to their numerical superiority and familiarity with the terrain, aside from the use of high-powered firearms, including the .50 caliber Barret sniper rifle that dealt fatal blows to the members of the SAF’s 55th Special Action Company (55SAC).

The MILF report also justified the taking of “war booties” from the slain policemen.

Under the Senate report, President Aquino was held ultimately responsible for the outcome of the Mamasapano operation, Poe said.

She added resigned Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Alan Purisima and former SAF commander Director Getulio Napeñas should be liable for usurpation of office and grave misconduct, respectively, for the incident.

Poe, however, commended the MILF leadership for submitting to the Senate a copy of its own report on the Mamasapano incident.

“What is important is that all of us continue in our pursuit of the truth and not to waver in our quest for genuine peace in Mindanao,” she said.

‘A cover-up’

Napeñas, however, accused the MILF of trying to cover up its liability in the killing of 44 policemen.

“It’s an attempt at cover-up,” Napeñas told ANC. He was referring to the MILF report blaming the SAF for the Mamasapano carnage and clearing its own men of liability for the deaths of 44 policemen.

Napeñas disputed the MILF claim that 55SAC started the gunbattle in Barangay Tukanalipao and that MILF guerrillas returned fire in self-defense.

“That is not true. We have the direct report from the lone survivor that their superiors ordered them to hold fire when they saw a growing number of armed men approaching, until these armed men from the MILF rained bullets on them. That was about 6 a.m.,” he said.

In fact, Napeñas said the Senate report has found that that the 35 troopers of 55SAC had been “massacred, murdered and robbed” of their equipment and personal belongings.

The lone survivor of the Tukanalipao gunfight that lasted up to 2 p.m. was Police Officer 2 Christopher Lalan.

The 55SAC was to serve as the blocking force of the 84th Seaborne, the 38-man team that assaulted the hideout of Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bir Hir, alias Marwan in the boundary of Tukanalipao and Barangay Pidsandawan.

The team killed Marwan but lost nine troopers in ensuing daylong firefights with guerrillas from the BIFF.

Two other targets, Amin Baco, another suspected Malaysian terrorist, and Filipino associate Abdul Basit Usman, escaped.

In its report, the MILF sought the investigation of Lalan, whom it accused of killing four of its members, who it claimed were sleeping in a makeshift mosque.

Napeñas denied this and quoted the lone survivor as saying he engaged the MILF members “because he regarded them as combatants and they would have killed him.”

He agreed the matter should be investigated.

Napeñas said the MILF assertion that it did not coddle Marwan and his associates “was absurd and unbelievable.”

“These terrorists were living inside the area of influence of the MILF 105th Base Command before moving to Pidsandawan. Their hideout was just 400-500 meters away from the house of MILF commander Ustadz Manan,” he said.

He also denied the MILF assertion that the SAF violated the ceasefire agreement between the government and the MILF, which the latter claims requires coordination with it whenever the police or the military conducts operations in their area of influence.

“On the contrary, the peace agreement provides that no coordination is required in case of a law enforcement operation such as the one we conducted on Jan. 25,” Napeñas said.

The former SAF chief insisted that Maj. Gen. Edmundo Pangilinan, commander of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, hesitated to give 55SAC artillery fire support “because of the peace process (with the MILF).”

“The location of 55SAC, Barangay Tukanalipao, is a known MILF community. The AFP fired blank artillery rounds at about 6 p.m. to help extricate 84SAC in Pidsandawan because that barangay is BIFF territory and there is no peace process with the BIFF,” he said.

Napeñas said he requested artillery support for the blocking force as early as before 6 a.m. and that even Army officers who reinforced his men supported his request.

Napeñas admitted that he feels bad about not getting enough help from the military in Maguindanao and from “high officials who were in Zamboanga City at that time.”

He was referring to President Aquino and his entourage of Cabinet members and high-ranking military officials led by Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr.

“The bad thing about this incident is that these high officials approved our mission, but left us hanging in the air,” he said.

Napeñas said he is taking his share of responsibility for what happened, but that higher officials should take their own share.

Asked why he listened to Purisima, Napeñas said, “It was because Director General Purisima, as we all know, was close to the President.”

Napeñas said he treated the “advice” Purisima gave him after their Jan. 9 meeting in Malacañang with Aquino as “the President’s order.”

He was referring to Purisima’s statement advising him not to immediately inform Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II and PNP officer in charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina about the mission against Marwan and his associates, and that he (Purisima) would take care of informing Catapang.

He said though Aquino told him and Purisima to coordinate with the AFP, Purisima assigned himself the task of getting in touch with Catapang.

Napeñas disagreed with the PNP’s Board of Inquiry (BOI) report that the President bypassed the PNP chain of command by dealing with him directly.

“The President did not deal with me directly. He did not call me or send me a text message. He dealt with Director General Purisima,” Napeñas said.

Contradictory

Some lawmakers also disagreed with the MILF report.

Sen. Francis Escudero said the MILF special investigation commission favored its fighters “as expected.”

Escudero debunked the MILF report attributing the failure of the SAF to coordinate the police operation as a major reason that caused the firefight.

“The law enforcement operation versus high value targets is exempt from coordination requirements. And if indeed it is a violation of the ceasefire, why complain only against the SAF, especially given that the President himself approved the operation,” Escudero said.

He said the MILF report only proves the rebel group has no control over other armed groups and criminals in their area.

“It appears now that we have to conduct peace talks with the others instead,” Escudero said.

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said the divergent reports gave two perspectives on the Jan. 25 police operations.

She added that it is now up to the public to draw conclusions based on various reports of a single incident.

Santiago also rejected the MILF’s claims that they did not know that Marwan and his local confederates were in the MILF-controlled areas.

“Do they mean to say that they had no knowledge of who were in the perimeters of their homeland? That’s an incredible claim. They cannot pass the test of credibility and that casts a shadow on the whole report,” she said.

Reps. Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro City, Karlo Alexei Nograles of Davao City, and Samuel Pagdilao of the ACT-CIS party-list group also slammed the MILF findings.

“The firefight took 11 hours. Maybe in the initial firefight that (lack of coordination) could be true but it was superseded by the fact that even after they (MILF) were informed of the ceasefire, they continued killing them (SAF troopers),” said Rodriguez, chairman of the House committee deliberating on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).

“By 1 p.m., almost all of them were dead. They were surrounded, massacred and then robbed,” he added.

Rodriguez said the MILF rebels violated international humanitarian laws in finishing off the wounded policemen and robbing them of their personal belongings.
Pagdilao, a former police officer, said the MILF’s claim that the SAF piled up their comrades and used them as shields is “ridiculous because it runs contrary to human experience.”

He said normally, soldiers would pull their wounded comrades to protect them from the barrage of enemy fire in the hope that they can still be saved.

Pagdilao also described as incredulous the claim that members of the MILF’s BIAF did not use unnecessary force against the SAF troopers because forensic findings and autopsy reports concluded that 26 of the 44 SAF were shot in the head, seven were shot through the back of the head, seven shot between the eyes and five shot through the forehead.

He said the trajectories of the bullets further indicated they were shot while lying on the ground.

He noted the MILF’s pinning the blame on the breakaway BIFF rebels and the other partisan armed group in the area for the killing of PO1 Joseph Sagonoy, a member of the 55SAC, as seen on a video that went viral on social media.

“Obviously, the MILF shows no sincerity and chose to be blind when it saw no wrong in the brutality conducted by those MILF or BIFF as shown by the video footage. That’s no way a partner in the peace process behaves,” Pagdilao said.

“They had totally lost whatever is left of the people’s faith, trust and confidence. This is farcical,” he said.

Rodriguez and Nograles also slammed the MILF’s suggestion that Lalan should be charged with violating international humanitarian laws.

“They’re (MILF) adding insult to injury. They’re (SAF) the ones attacked. That’s adding insult to injury. He was just trying to escape and it was good that he was able to tell us what happened,” Rodriguez said.

He said the MILF should also officially give a copy of its report to the Department of Justice (DOJ), the agency determining the criminal liability of those involved in the killing of the 44 policemen.

“They have to give their side, otherwise the DOJ will have an incomplete picture, and that would be detrimental to them. They’re covered by the DOJ because they’re also Filipinos,” he said.

Malacañang said the DOJ would have to assess the liability of the MILF fighters involved in the killing of the policemen.

“We leave it to DOJ to determine how the MILF report will be relevant to their investigation,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said.

Sec. Leila de Lima said the DOJ probe team would evaluate the sources of the factual findings in the MILF report that cited liabilities of the SAF commandos.

She cited the MILF’s claim that the survivor among the SAF operatives killed civilians in the area who were already surrendering.

“That will be part of the verification in our investigation. That’s a question of fact so we have to determine if that is true or not. That should really be part of the investigation,” De Lima said.

 On the other hand, Rodriguez and Negros Occidental Rep. Jeffrey Ferrer, chairman of the House committee on public order, said lawmakers are going over the MILF report in preparation for the resumption of hearings on the Mamasapano incident.

The ad hoc panel chaired by Rodriguez is scheduled to resume deliberations on the BBL on April 27 while Ferrer’s panel will continue its joint hearing with the committee on peace, unity and reconciliation – chaired by Basilan Rep. Jim Hataman-Salliman – on the Mamasapano incident on April 7 to 8.

“Definitely the MILF report will be taken up in the hearings,” Ferrer said.

 Meanwhile, Raechel June Sumbilla, the pregnant widow of PO3 John Lloyd Sumbilla, one of the 44 police slain in Mamasapano, said that until now, there are no clear answers as to who should be held responsible for the death of her husband.

“Now, I’m still coping. I spent sleepless nights thinking why my husband deserved this,” she told a gathering of Women’s Empowerment in Bataan.

“I am taking this opportunity to call on, again and again, the attention of the government… about the death of the 44 SAF heroes who risked their lives to ensure the safety of the nation because you ordered them, now that they are already gone, what can you do to ensure that justice will be served to them without naming anyone at fault in the disastrous police operation,” she said. – Jess Diaz, Paolo Romero, Delon Porcalla, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Edu Punay, Raffy Viray

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