Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas in the Philippines were involved in the killing of 49 Special Action Force (SAF) commandos but the “unfortunate and saddening development” was due to the failure of the elite police unit to coordinate its activities with the rebel group, MILF chief peace negotiator Mohaquer Iqbal said yesterday.
Iqbal said fighting erupted before dawn Sunday when three SAF platoons intruded into a supposedly government-recognized guerilla enclave in Barangay Tukanalipao, supposedly to arrest Malaysian explosives expert Zulkifli Bin Hir and his Maguindanaon cohort, the long wanted Basit Usman.
He said the policemen should have coordinated their operations to arrest suspected terrorists in the area with the joint ceasefire committee and the International Monitoring Team (IMT).
A survivor whose identity was withheld said the Muslim rebels finished off many of his wounded comrades. He said he witnessed some of the gunmen firing several rounds at dead or wounded commandos.
“It was a misencounter that happened due to lack of coordination based on agreed security protocols,” Iqbal, concurrent presiding chair of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, said.
Five MILF rebels were killed and a dozen others were reportedly injured in the encounter.
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“It is unfortunate that some people died. It cannot be undone. Next time, it is important to have coordination so that these things won’t happen again,” he added.
A police official claimed one of the terrorists was already in the custody of the commandos before the fighting. It was not clear what happened to him in the ensuing chaos.
The fighting forced hundreds of families to flee their homes.
The fighting in the marshy village of cornfields and coconut plantations subsided after several hours when members of a ceasefire committee and foreign truce monitors intervened, Mayor Tahirudin Benzar Ampatuan said, adding he deployed a team of village leaders and guards who saw more than 30 of the slain commandos scattered in the battle scene.
“What they described to me was gruesome,” Ampatuan said.
While he recognized that the incident was a setback, Iqbal said he hoped peace timetables would not be impacted.
“We are committed (to the peace process). For the MILF, the ceasefire still holds,” he said.
Philippine National Police office-in-charge Leonardo Espina and Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II flew to Maguindanao yesterday to check on the situation.
In a statement, Espina said the police commandoes were chasing a “high-value target” believed to be behind recent bomb attacks in Mindanao. He did not elaborate.
BIFF joined fight
Local officials said members of the outlawed Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) joined the battle when a group of retreating policemen entered its stronghold in Barangay Mangapang.
BIFF spokesman Abu Misry Mama boasted Sunday night that its fighters surrounded about a dozen retreating policemen who had run out of ammunition.
Mama had also bragged about the BIFF’s killing more than a dozen SAF commandos.
He said BIFF members appropriated the firearms of the dead policemen as the bandits took new battle positions by dusk Sunday.
Senior Superintendent Noel Armilla, officer-in-charge of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) police, said they have so far counted 20 fatalities, based on bodies recovered from the scene after the six-hour battle.
Sources said at least 37 SAF members were confirmed to have died in the fighting. Many of the dead were found in rice fields.
Armilla said they expect to find the remains of more commandos as government security forces expand their search.
“They already got the target but when they were about to leave the area they were engaged by lawless elements,” Armilla told The STAR.
He noted that his command and SAF under Chief Superintendent Gertulio Napenas as well as the 6th Infantry Division under Gen. Edmundo Pangilinan have established a joint command center in the old capitol to ensure coordination.
“We have better coordination. It was tough for our troops because the rebels know the terrain in the area. But they’re less in danger now. We have enough augmentation force in the area,” Armilla added.
Six of the fatalities were officers with different ranks, according to sources from the ARMM police office in Camp S.K. Pendatun in Parang, Maguindanao.
Local residents said hostilities in Tukanalipao erupted when the policemen, clad in combat uniforms, opened fire near the house of a cleric named Imam Manan, a senior official of the MILF’s 105th Base Command.
Sources from the Maguindanao provincial police office in nearby Shariff Aguak town said the SAF contingent was looking for Zulkifli, alias Marwan, and his cohort, Usman.
Marwan is a known member of al-Qaeda’s Asian cell, the Jemaah Islamiyah. Usman, on the other hand, was said to have undergone training in the handling of explosives and fabrication of improvised bombs in Peshawar, Pakistan and in Kandahar, Afghanistan in the late 1980s.
Residents said MILF members from nearby villages arrived and engaged the SAF men in battle.
The IMT, whose members include soldiers from Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Libya, and civilian conflict resolution and rehabilitation experts from Japan, Norway and the European Union, has been monitoring the government-MILF ceasefire in flashpoint areas in Mindanao since 2003.
Captain Jo-Ann Petinglay, public affairs chief of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said not a single unit of the 6th ID was involved in the hostilities.
Combatants of the Army’s mechanized units in Shariff Aguak have secured clearance to collect the remains of the slain SAF members, but temporarily suspended their operation by dusk Sunday to avoid further security problems.
Petinglay said Army officers in Mamasapano and nearby towns have also been ordered to validate reports of mutilation of some dead policemen by BIFF bandits.
The ARMM’s Humanitarian Emergency Assistance and Response Team (HEART) has been verifying the reported death of three Tukanalipao residents in the crossfire.
ARMM Gov. Mujiv Hataman, chairman of the inter-agency regional peace and order council, said HEART workers would provide relief and rehabilitation services to hundreds of displaced families.
He said ARMM would also initiate backchannel efforts to defuse tensions.
The municipal peace and order council of Mamasapano, chaired by Mayor Ampatuan, confirmed that stray bullets hit two civilians during the firefights.
Petinglay said the IMT and the joint ceasefire committee arranged a repositioning of MILF forces away from the scenes of the encounters to enable soldiers to continue retrieving the remains of SAF fatalities.
The rebels were last reported to have relocated to open fields in nearby Shariff Saidona town also in Maguindanao.
For the military, diplomacy is still the best response to the crisis.
“We are trying our best to talk to different leaders, LGUs (local government units), the MILF and even the BIFF to defuse all tensions and settle the problem in a peaceful manner,” Armed Forces public affairs chief Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc told reporters yesterday.
Iqbal, in a radio interview, said the MILF has instructed its ground commanders to ensure the conflict does not escalate.
“The MILF is doing everything to prevent tensions. In fact, the IMT, the ceasefire committees and the highest military leadership of the MILF have asked our commanders to do everything possible so that the problem won’t worsen,” he told radio station dzBB.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, for his part, said he is concerned about the possible effect of the encounter on the peace talks between the government and the MILF.
“We are not worried but it is a concern. Of course, there are people who do not want to join the majority and they will do something to be noticed,” he said.
Gazmin stressed the military would continue to assist law enforcers in tracking down terrorists.
“The government will (exert) all its might in order to prevent the terrorists from moving around our area,” the defense chief said.
Iqbal said there was an attempt by SAF members to hide their operations. He claimed that the SAF commandos were the first to fire shots and that the MILF members only responded in self-defense.
“What is important is it (clash) was not a handiwork of the MILF. The PNP attacked so the MILF members defended themselves,” he added.
But he said “the two sides, the partners of peace process, should talk and find ways to move forward because the peace process is important, the BBL is important.”
Marwan dead… again?
Gazmin, meanwhile, said they have received reports that Marwan had been killed in the encounter.
He, however, clarified that the information is still being validated.
“The PNP operation (tracked down) high-value terrorist targets. According to reports, they were able to neutralize one of them, Marwan, although Basit Usman was able to escape,” Gazmin said.
“We have no confirmation yet but that was the report we got last night,” he added.
Marwan is facing multiple murder, multiple frustrated murder and multiple attempted murder charges. The US has offered $5 million for his capture while the Philippines put up a reward of P7.4 million.
In 2012, the military claimed that 15 terrorists, including three of the most wanted al-Qaeda-linked militants, were killed in an air raid in Parang, Sulu.
Officials said among those killed were Abu Sayyaf leader Gumbahali Jumdail alias Dr. Abu, Muhammad Ali Bin Abd Al-Rahman alias Mauwiyah, and Marwan.
But in 2014, security officials admitted that it was possible that the Malaysian terrorist was still alive.
List of SAF killed
Only the names of 41 confirmed dead SAF men have been released as of press time.
They were PSI Gednat Tabde, PSI Ryan Pabalinas, PSI Garamnbas Tria, SPO1 Lover Inocencio, PO3 Rodrigo Acob Jr., PO3 Virgil Villanueva, PO2 Roger Cordero, PO2 Peterson Carap, PO2 Nicky Nacino Jr., PO1 Angel Kodiamat, PO2 Glenn Bedua, PO3 Noel Golocan, PO2 Jerry Kayob;
PO2 Noel Balaca, PO1 Romeo Cempron, PO2 Joel Dulnuan, PO2 Christopher Lalan, PO2 Walner Danao, PO2 Franklin Danao, PO2 Omar Nacionales, PO2 Godofredo Cabanlit Candano, PO1 Russel Bilog, PO1 Loreto Capinding, PO3 Junrel Kibete, PO1 Gringo Cayang-o;
PO2 Rodel Ramacula, PO1 Joseph Sagonoy, PO3 John Lloyd Sumbilla, PO2 Chum Agabon, PO3 Robert Allaga, PO1 Mark Lory Clemencio, PO1 Oliebeth Viernes, PO2 Richelle Baluga, PO3 Andres Duque, PO3 Jedz-in Asjali, PO2 Amman Esmula, PO3 Victoriano Acain, PI Joey Gamutan, PI John Garry Erana, PSI Cyrus Anniban, PI Rennie Tyrus (missing).
The remains of the slain policemen who were Christians weretaken tot he mortuary of the Army’s 6th ID in Datu Odin Sinsuat town in the first district of Maguindanao.
The remains of two Muslim policemen, Sajali and Esmula, were entrusted to Army Islamic missionaries. – With Cecille Suerte Felipe, Jaime Laude, AP