President Benigno Aquino 3rd on Wednesday admitted that there were lapses in coordination of the Philippine National Police (PNP)-Special Action Force (SAF) with the military during a deadly clash between government troops and separatist rebels in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, last Sunday.
In a televised address, the President said the lapses happened despite his instructions to SAF Director Getulio Napenas to coordinate with concerned groups.
The operation, according to Aquino, has long been given the go-signal—since 2002—to arrest alleged Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as “Marwan.”
In narrating what happened, he said he had repeatedly reminded Napenas, who has been sacked from his post, about the need for coordination between the PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
“In continually repeating the need for coordination [to Napenas], the head of SAF always said, ‘Yes sir,’” the President added.
“I emphasized that other branches must be alerted, and their chiefs. It must be timely and the information complete,” he said.
Instead, Aquino complained, he got “very minimal compliance,” saying he was surprised to learn that the military only found out about the operation after the SAF had entered what turned out to be rebel territory.
“Sa madaling salita, dikit na sa oras ng engkuwentro ang abiso, at mahirap masabi kung nagkaroon ng sapat na panahon upang ihanda ang ayuda kung kakailanganin [In other words, the information was received when the clash was taking place, and it is hard to say if there was enough time for the police commandos to call for assistance],” he said
The President denied that his Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, the chief of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Council, was involved in the SAF operation, which supposedly also involved suspended PNP chief Gen. Alan Purisima.
But he admitted that he was in communication with the suspended police chief.
“Gen. Purisima was helping me understand it, he was involved until he was directed suspended by the Ombudsman,” Aquino said.
But when asked by journalists to give a categorical yes or no on whether he gave the go-signal for the January 25 operation, Aquino evaded the question.
Some 44 police officers from the elite Special Action Force were killed in the gunbattle, which MILF chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said was simply “self-defense” on their part.
Reports said 392 police commandos were on their way to arrest Marwan and bomb-making expert Basit Usman, who are both connected with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
The President called for a national day of mourning for the fallen commandos.
In light of the Mamasapano clash, the Senate and House of Representatives indefinitely suspended hearings on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).
The BBL, which aims to end the decades-old conflict in Mindanao, seeks to create a Bangsamoro political entity, which will replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
It also targets wealth- and power-sharing arrangements between the national government and the new political entity.
In his TV speech, the President defended the peace process, saying it would honor the deaths of the SAF officers.
“If this peace process does not succeed, if we return to status quo, if it worsens, won’t this be the opposite of what they died for?,” he asked.
Aquino said both sides have come so far to achieve lasting peace, and stopping now would mean returning to the exact same thing the government has worked to fix.
“If that’s what will happen, who will benefit? If this will not continue, how many more graves will we dig? How many children will grow up idolizing Marwan and wanting to be Usman?,” he also asked.
A number of lawmakers expressed reservations on the draft BBL, which will pave the way for the creation of the Bangsamoro political entity in accordance with the government’s peace deal with the MILF.
Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and JV Ejercito have withdrawn their co-authorship of the bill, which now has the support of fewer than half of the House of Represenatives.
Malacanang officials said lawmakers should look at the bigger picture and push for peace in the region.
Peace Process Adviser and Secretary Teresita Deles said it is the government’s “duty” to pursue justice and peace in a land that has long been mired in conflict.
She warned against “jeopardizing” the future of the nation.
Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said while they recognize the “challenge posed by the violent incident,” the government should focus on the “objective of attaining long-term peace, stability and progress in Mindanao.”