Third of four parts
FROM the very start, Oplan Exodus was President Benigno S. Aquino’s call. To begin with, it came about as the synthesis of the mission update Police Director General Alan Purisima made to him on the failure of Terminators 1 and 2. And in the ensuing implementation of the plan, President Aquino took a more direct hand through a number of instructions, among them on his insistence to c oordinate the operation with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) himself and on the use of more men in the operation.
As regards the first issue, Police Director Getulio Napenas pointed out that based on previous experiences and the strong recommendation of the Director, PNP Intelligence Group and SAF Intelligence Officers, prior coordination with the AFP would compromise the operation, hence, it was recommended that the coordination shall be done “time on target” or when the assault force is already at the target area. One glaring example was Oplan Wolverine, conducted previous to the two Oplans Terminator, which was aborted on the night it was to be carried out because the expected mechanized support from the 6th Infantry Division did not materialize. Why? Because the Division Commander required coordination with the Muslim rebels 24 hours ahead. That, in the view of the Planning Group headed by Napenas and the Intelligence officers, would practically be alarming Marwan to go flee. Without the mechanized support from the 6th ID, which was a major part of the plan, Napeñas called off the operation.
In the execution of Oplan Exodus, Police Director Napeñas was not against coordination with the AFP per se. His recommendation was to make such coordination within the concept of “time on target (TOT)”, which meant making the operation known to the AFP only once the assault force is within the target site. This was how the Board of Inquiry report puts it.
According to Napeñas, this was seconded by Police Director General Purisima and the Director, PNP Intelligence Group; the President did not make any comment on this idea, and General Napenas took the executive silence as approval of the same. In any case, General Purisima, as reflected in the BOI report, took it upon himself to coordinate the matter with the AFP with the words, “Ako na ang bahala kay Catapang,” referring to the AFP Chief of Staff.
As regards the second issue, the first schedule for executing Oplan Exodus was January 11 to 14, 2015. Police Director Napeñas proposed to move it to later date which was approved, because during the original period there were not enough men to use, the bulk of SAF forces being in Tacloban to secure the visit there of Pope Francis. The execution of the plan was set for the period from January 23 to 26.
Those were the givens in Oplan Exodus when it was presented to President Benigno S. Aquino at the Bahay Pangarap in Malacañang Palace on January 9, 2015. The mission was carried out starting on the eve of January 24 up to January 25, 2015.
President Aquino had complete knowledge and absolute control of Oplan Exodus. Undeniable testimony to this is the fact that at the helm of the operation was the already suspended CPNP General Purisima, who would certainly not be there calling the shots if not for the continued blessing of command he got from who else but the President.
In news accounts subsequent to the SAF 44 tragedy, much weight had been given to the responsibility of the ground commander, who was Police Director Napeñas. The overall perception propagated in the media was that though the general orders came from above, the responsibility for their execution redounded to the commander on the ground. This issue was well ventilated in the Senator Llamanzares-headed hearing at the Senate.
There had even been criticisms made to the effect that Police Director Napenas was not on the site of the operation when the beleaguered SAF troops were fighting for their lives. The general calls this criticism untrue as he was actually giving command, direction and control at the Tactical Command Post inside the Maguindanao Police Provincial Office, approximately 10 kilometers from the encounter site.
“We had established a Tactical Command Post from where all the while I was directing operations,” he said in the interview. “This is standard in all police operations.”
The movement of the Main Effort (main assault force of SAF) on that fateful eve of January 25, 2015 is described in the PNP Board of Inquiry Report submitted to the Senate investigation on the Mamasapano Massacre thus:
“During the debriefing, Train (Police Superintendent Raymund Train of the 84th Special Action Company) – the team leader of the Main Effort – said that he and his men arrived at their drop off point at 10 p.m. of January 24, 2015. They passed through unfamiliar terrain, a muddy river, a vast cornfield in the territory shared by the BIFF and the MILF.
“Train said that about 02:30 a.m., they reached the last river bank which they needed to traverse. Knowing it would be daylight soon, Train decided that the first group to cross the river should not wait for others to cross (to) the other side of the river.
“Train infiltrated the enemy’s lair about 400 meters from the river. They reached Marwan’s hut, with the help of a guide at about 4:00 a.m.
“The team was initially roused with IEDs (improvised explosive device), triggered outside Marwan’s hut, prompting an exchange of fire between SAF and Marwan. Marwan who was awakened by the presence of the Commandos outside his hut first turned off his lights before firing against the SAF men.
“The firefight lasted for about 15 minutes. The Seaborne fatally shot Marwan in the chest, causing his death.
“Upon confirmation that they got the first target, Police Senior Inspector Gednat Tabdi severed the right index finger of Marwan for DNA analysis and took some pictures (of) Marwan. Usman, the second target of the operations, along with two others managed to escape.”
The above detail of the BOI report is quoted in order to clarify the issue of whether or not Oplan Exodus was a failure.
“The BOI report is an honest report,” declared General Napenas in the interview. “The only thing I disagree with in it is its finding that Oplan Exodus was poorly planned. For all intents and purposes, the plan was a success. We got the objective. Isn’t that proof that the plan was good? Where was the failure? It was the intervention of the MILF and BIFF during the exfiltration of our troops that complicated the situation and the lack of timely and effective reinforcement. And in this matter, I seek absolution.”
From the BOI report, one thing is clear: that the MILF and BIFF troops immediately withdrew once the 6th ID began firing artillery. But that was around 6:00 in the evening when all the members of 55SAC except for one had already been annihilated. Had that artillery support been given at the time needed most by the members of 55SAC, most if not all of the SAF 44 would have been saved.
According to Police Director Napeñas, that artillery support from the AFP was personally requested by the two SAF Officers, Deputy Director SAF and Operations Officer of the Oplan Exodus, from the Commander, Mechanized Brigade, 6ID as soon as the members of the 55SAC came under heavy fire in the morning of January 25.
Why it took one long, whole day for that artillery to come – when all of the 55SAC were already dead except one and nine members of the 84SAC were dead, in the case of some, still capable of being saved but were dealt a far more terrible death from firing at close range – when all the while President Aquino was in Zamboanga closely monitoring all these awful transpirations, is the key question Senator Juan Ponce Enrile is determined to get answers for when the Senate investigation on the SAF 44 carnage reopens January 27, 2015.
Tomorrow read the concluding part: “To Suffer Thy Own Men.”