Malacanang reportedly sanctioned the operation of the Special Action Force in Maguindanao which resulted in the death of 49 members of the elite unit at the hands of Moro Islamic Liberation Front members.
It also reportedly resulted in the death of Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, although authorities have yet to confirm the report since his body has not been found.
A highly-placed source said the operation was part of a grand plan to neutralize Marwan and was hatched by the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission headed by Executive Secretary Pacquito Ochoa.
“The project originally was formulated by the office of the PNP intelligence branch sometime in 2011 and the grand plan was submitted to the PAOCC office for funding,” the source said.
Police Director Noel delos Reyes was reportedly pulled out from the PNP Directorate for Intelligence and was appointed regional director of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to head the operation.
Communications Secretary Herminio ‘Sonny’ Coloma tacitly admitted that the Palace knew of the operations and said the SAF forces were out to arrest Marwan.
“They (SAF) conducted a law enforcement operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao to arrest a high-value suspected terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir also known as Marwan who was allegedly a member of the Markaziyah, Jemaah Islamiyah’s central command. The PNP-SAF performed this mission with courage and professionalism,” Coloma said.
“Based on latest reports, there is a high likelihood that the primary target, Marwan, has been neutralized,” he added.
Coloma, however, did not directly comment on the killing of the PAF forces, saying that a fact-finding mission is still being conducted on the ground.
“We are still waiting for the full report to get to the bottom of what really happened so we cannot make yet a conclusion (on whether to condemn the killing),” he said.
“Why are we pushing for condemnation? The report has not yet been completed,” he said.
But when pressed if he was saying that the SAF elements killed were being viewed as “collateral damage,” Coloma said: “We have no such conclusion. We should be more circumspect in making conclusions.”
Coloma also did not give a categorical response to questions such as why was the Moro Islamic Liberation Front harboring Marwan - if it is confirmed that the terrorist was neutralized inside their stronghold - and why the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters - supposedly a breakaway group - appear to be still working with the MILF.
President Benigno Aquino III has dispatched Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, Defense chief Voltaire Gazmin, Armed Forces chief of staff Gen. Gregorio Catapang, and PNP officer-in-charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina to lead the fact-finding mission.
But the source said the PNP SAF unit should have properly coordinated with military authorities in Maguindanao considering that it was a top-level operations sanctioned by higher authorities.
Maguindanao is under the jurisdiction of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division.
Marwan, who carries a bounty of $5 million the United States had offered for his capture, was reportedly killed during the encounter, but the SAF suffered the bigger damage, with seven officers killed and several others wounded in the day-long clashes at the outskirts of Pidsandawan, Masasapano, Sunday.
Another terrorist, Abdul Basit Usman, who carries a $1 million reward, allegedly escaped during the firefight.
The source said that among those killed were Police Senior Inspectors Pabalinas and Erana, but authorities have refused to confirm this, saying that the SAF has not released a list of those involved in the operation.
A source from the military said they are now in pursuit of eight more SAF members who were reportedly captured by a combined MILF-Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters forces.
Troops from the 6th Infantry Division the military said, are scouring the Masasapano area in a search of the captured SAF members.
But PNP Officer-in-Charge Deputy Director Leonardo Espina denied that eight SAF members were seized, saying that only one SAF member was missing.
“Pursuit operations are underway against lawless elements who figured in an encounter with our troops in Maguindanao today (Sunday) even as we mourn the loss of some police commandos of the PNP-SAF who offered the supreme sacrifice for peace,” said Espina.
“I have instructed police commanders in the area to make available all support systems to contain the situation and mitigate the effects on civilian communities in the area,” added Espina.
Espina said more than 100 SAF personnel had been tasked to neutralize Marwan and Usman.
The SAF contingent was culled from three units – from the 55th, 45th and 84th Seaborne company, all under the 5th Special Action Battalion.
A post encounter report said that the SAF members were about to swoop down to the outskirts of Pinsandawan after they were informed on the presence of Marwanat around 10 p.m. Saturday but were immediately met by a volley of gunfire, which started the clashes.
Confident that they had neutralized Arwan, the SAF members were about to leave the area when they were ambushed by another group and were forced to scamper to different directions but later ended up in the rebel camps, triggering another firefight.
The clashes lasted until Sunday late evening, and by then, the SAF had suffered 47 casualties.
The SAF contingent were reportedly pinned down by a barrage of gunfire from the 108 base command and 105 based command of the MILF under commanders Resbak and Visaya.
Espina, meanwhile, declined to confirm that the SAF had killed Marwan, although Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin had said that the SAF personnel had indeed neutralized the Malaysian terrorist.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, meanwhile, branded the “special operation” by the SAF as a violation of the ceasefire agreement.
MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar said that while he is not aware which said fired first that triggered the clashes, he said that the PNP failed to coordinate with the MILF with regards to the operation.
“I can categorically pronounce now that there was no coordination made and I think this is a violation of the provision of the ceasefire agreement or the AHJAG (Ad Hoc Joint Action Group) agreement,” Jaafar said.
MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal agreed with Jaafar’s statement, even a he said that the MILF leadership has already instructed its commanders to help defuse the tension in Mamasapano.
“The MILF is exerting all efforts to put a stop to these (clashes),” said Iqbal over a radio interview.
“In fact, the International Monitoring Team and the ceasefire committees of the government and the MILF and the highest military leadership of the MILF directed the ground commanders to do everything possible to prevent this from worsening, to contain the problem,” he added.
Iqbal said that the clash was the first this year between the MILF and government forces – a rare one since the MILF and the government of the Philippines (GPH) signed peace agreement in 2012.
In a separate statement, government chief negotiator Miriam Ferrer, deplored the death of the policemen but did not offer any condemnation.
“Our aim is to normalize the situation as soon as possible in order to prevent the displacement of civilians and give full swing to the humanitarian effort. This incident and other recent acts of violence by other armed groups manifest the diverse security challenges that confound the peace process,” Ferrer said.
“But our resolve to see through the process of legislating the Bangsamoro Basic Law and implementing the different normalization programs, including the security components, is only further strengthened. With better cooperation we will be able to prevent these kinds of incidents,” she added.
Coloma said the government will continue to push for the immediate passage of the proposed BBL.
Once passed, the BBL would implement the peace agreement between the government and the MILF - abolishing the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and creating a new Bangsamoro political entity.
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