The fatal covert operation that killed 44 members of the elite Special Action Force and wounded 12 others had been assigned by President Benigno Aquino to suspended National Police Chief Alan Purisima, apparently without the knowledge of Interior Secretary Manuel ‘Mar’ Roxas 11.
A police general, who was part of the planning and actual operation and is privy to the ongoing investigation told the Manila Standard on Tuesday that Aquino may have considered Purisima as still the “de facto PNP chief” in assigning to him the sensitive mission.
“It was a tragedy in the making,” according to the police general.
“The President was aware of the Marwan covert operations. Purisima reported directly to him. In fact, the President went to Zamboanga prior to the troop’s jump off to Mamasapano in Maguindanao so that he would be in the vicinity when Malaysian terrorist Zulkipli bin Hir alias Marwan and Filipino Basit Usman, both bomb experts linked to the Jemaah Islamiya terror cell, are captured,” said the general, who requested anonymity.
“The President was there as he expected the turnover of Marwan to the Philippine government. The President would be present during the presentation of Marwan. Such was the solid plan,” he said. “The President expected a successful operation.”
He added that “Roxas was not with the President. He was kept out of the loop. No one else knew of the covert operations because the subject were terrorists wanted worldwide by the US government, which even offered a $5-million bounty for Marwan’s capture and $1 million for Usman.”
He said there was “no clear leadership” other than a marching order that it was sanctioned by Malacañang.
“From the ground, the SAF officials reported directly to Purisima, who ran the operations from the White House in Camp Crame, despite his suspension,” the general said.
“Purisima would then report either to Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. or directly to the President,” the source said.
The controversial white house was the official residence of the PNP chief and was the reason why Purisima was suspended following his acceptance of P25 million in donations for the renovation of the residence.
“Secretary Roxas was kept out of the loop. He was so incensed that when he called for an emergency meeting, the first he did was confront [PNP officer-in-charge Deputy Director Gerardo] Espina and the SAF officials and blamed the SAF. We felt no empathy from him. He blamed us,” the general said.
“Why was I not informed? Why was I kept in the dark?” the general quoted Roxas as saying when he arrived at the command conference.
“Who was behind this operation?” Roxas demanded.
Espina immediately took a hands-off stance and told Roxas he was also not aware of the Palace-sanctioned raid.
The general explained that the President allowed Purisima to run the operations because it was Purisima who was in possession of all intelligence information about Marwan.
Purisima, he said, had followed and tracked Marwan’s moves since 2005.
“Due to the sensitivity of the information, Purisima would not share the intel with anyone and asserted he had to personally run and oversee the operations,” the general said.
Besides, the general said, Purisima needed such a huge break and successful operation to redeem himself from the controversies linking him to graft and corrupt practices, for which he was suspended for six months.
The President, thinking of the possible worldwide attention he would be getting for having to capture the world’s most wanted terrorist, gave Purisima the go signal.
“Purisima was told by the President to operate “incognito”,” the general said.
“The President acceded to Purisima’s condition and ordered Ochoa to provide Purisima the resources, ammunition and artillery that his troops would need,” the source said.
“So all the SAF men involved, including the 44 who perished, the 12 who were seriously wounded and a survivor of the carnage, were all trusted men of Purisima,” the general said.
Asked what went wrong as the SAF troops had engaged in a fierce firefight with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the general said it was the MILF that violated the ceasefire.
“The ceasefire was in effect. We observed it. We expected the MILF to observe that too. There was no way we could coordinate with the MILF when the terrorists we were after were in their territory,” the general said.
“We were there only to serve warrants for the arrest of Marwan and Usman. There was no intention to engage in a firefight with the MILF. We did, however, expect an exchange of gunfire with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in case they turned up because there was no standing ceasefire with them,” the general said. “We also came ready with our weapons.”
“We were caught unawares when the MILF fired upon us. And so we radioed for back-up and artillery from the Philippine Army. The Army refused to send the artillery and told us their hands were tied because of the standing ceasefire,” the general said.
“The army officials even thought the distress signal and SOS for back-up over radio was a prank call because they insisted there was no operation slated in Mamasapano,” the general said.
He said the call for help went to a circuitous route – from Mamasapano to Camp Crame to Zamboanga, where the President ordered Ochoa to call the Army and send an extraction team.
“It took us several hours of convincing the “higher-ups” that our ranks were already being slaughtered,” the general said.
“The artillery came at 6 a.m. when most of the men were decimated already,” the source said.
The general said a seven-man fact-finding team has been formed to get to the bottom of the Masasapano carnage.
Asked to elaborate on the President’s order for Purisima to remain “incognito,” the source said it meant, that “Purisima, even if the operations turned to be successful, cannot claim credit for it.”
But now that it turned into a huge failure, the general said, it would be an injustice to the 44 men who got killed if no one would be made responsible for their death.
“This is why this early, we wanted the real story to come out so that no one could bend the truth as to what really happened and who were responsible behind the operations. We want the real story told. Lives had been lost. Those were good men,” the general said.
As this developed, Espino sacked Director Getulio Napenas as chief of the Special Action Force on Tuesday following the fatal operation.
Espina announced Napenas’ relief during a press briefing in Camp Crame. Espino said SAF Deputy Director Chief Supt Noli Talina will replace Napenas as SAF officer in charge.
“I talked personally to Director Napenas about his relief at the start of the Board of Inquiry. I would like to get to the bottom of things,” Espina said.
Roxas had ordered that a BOI be formed to unravel the whole truth behind the special operations led by the SAF Sunday at Brgy Pidsandawan, Mamasapano.
The BOI will be headed by Director Edgardo Ingking, head of the Directorate for Integrated Police Operation in Mindanao, with PNP-Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) chief Director Benjamin Magalong and Chief Supt. Catalino Rodriguez, of the PNP Directorate for Research and Development and the PNP Secretariat as members.
“What happened during the encounter, were there lapses, and if were there persons liable, they should be meted sanctions,” Roxas said.
“It is also important to know whether there were operational lapses so that this would not happen again,” Roxas said.
The SAF special operation was centered on arresting Malaysian terrorist and Jemaah Islamiya-trained bomb expert Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, and his Filipino counterpart Basit Usman.
Roxas and Espina both claimed that Marwan was killed during the operation. Roxas said that Marwan’s death was properly documented with a photograph showing the supposed dead body of the terrorist.
Roxas said the clash between the SAF mmebers and MILF was a misencounter, but sources from the police and the military rejected the claim as highly improbable.
“That’s very farfetched. Obviously, the SILG has no exposure to combat. In the field, misencounter can be established only minutes after the initial shooting. But in Mamasapano, the SAF were engaged in intense, hours of firefight,” a source from Camp Crame said.
“Worse, some of the SAF troops bore bullets wounds at their backs, which means that the perpetrators managed to get near the troops. So, how can that be a misencounter?” the source added.
Roxas had clarified the SAF commandos went to the lair of the MILF and BIFF, a splinter group of MILF, in Barangay Tukanalipao, Mamasapano in Maguindanao last Sunday not because of the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation $5-million bounty and another P1 million reward on Marwan and Usman, respectively.
The SAF operatives were doing a legitimate police operation when they were attacked by BIFF and MILF elements, and that the misencounter began when the elite police force had entered an MILF-controlled area, he said.
A total of 392 elements of the PNP-SAF were involved in the operation, of whom 44 were confirmed dead, 12 were wounded, while 336 were all accounted for, Roxas said in an official statement. He also ordered PNP’s Comptroller Director Rolando Purugganan to ensure that all the benefits due “our fallen heroes” will be given to them “Put up a system to ensure that they (victims’ kin) will immediately receive all assistance due them,” he said.
The supposed arrest of Marwan and Usman had nothing to do with the suicide bomb threat on Pope Francis’ five-day visit to the country, he said.
“Marwan is a high-value target both internationally and locally. Authorities had long been after him for being the most wanted terrorist,” he added.
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