MAMASAPANO, Maguindanao (MindaNews/27 January) – US troops were not involved in the operations Sunday to get high-value targets Zulkifli bin HIr aka Marwan of the Jemaah Islamiyah and Abdulbasit Usman of the Abu Sayyaf, in Mamasapan town, Kurt Hoyer, Press Attache and spokesperson of the US Embassy in Manila said.
Hoyer told MindaNews in a text message Tuesday morning that “at the request of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, US service members serving in JSOTF-P (Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines) responded to assist in evacuation of dead and wounded after the firefight in Maguindanao.”
“For details of the operation and its purpose, please check with PNP (Philippine National Police),” Hoyer said.
At least 44 members of the Special Action Force (SAF) of the Philippine National Police were killed Sunday in clashes with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and with the Bangsmaoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) here when the SAF, apparently without coordinating with the local mlitary and police as well as the peace process mechanisms of the government and MILF’s Coordinating Committees on Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) and Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), entered Barangay Tukanalipao in Mamasapano town before dawn Sunday, allegedly to serve the warrants of arrest against the two high-value targets.
Twelve other SAF personnel were reported injured while at least 10 MILF guerrillas were reported killed.
Local Governmetns Secretary Mar Roxas told a press conference in Cotabato City on Monday afternoon it was a “legitimate law enforcement action.”
Two days after the tragedy, officials have kept mum over who issued the order to send the troops to Mamasapano and why the issuing authority did not coordinate, given the policy of the Aquino administration on the “primacy of the peace process” and the timing of the operations.
Sunday was a day before the Senate was to conduct a hearing on the questions of constitutionality of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) and the House of Representatives’ Ad Hoc Committee on the BBL was about to start its executive committee meetings.
The OIC PNP chief himself, Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina admitted in a press conference Tuesday in Manila that he was not informed about the SAF operations in Mamasapano.
Espina’s admission further bolstered speculations over social media that an unseen hand, referring to the United States government, may have been behind the operations.
Hoyer denied this.
Roxas told reporters in Camp Crame Tuesday that he had no idea why US troops were in Shariff Aguak and Cotabato on Monday. GMA News TV quoted Roxas as saying, “Baka kasama sa Balikatan, base is 6th ID ng AFP, baka andun sila providing whatever logistical support sa AFP. AFP is part of recovery.”
On Monday, US military troops in civilian clothes were seen assisting local police in airlifting the wounded on board a non-military helicopter from the PNP provincial headquarters in Shariff Aguak to the Army’s 6th Infantry Division’s Camp Siongco in Datu Odin Sinsuat.
The presence of US troops fueled speculations of US participation in the operations to get Marwan, a Malaysian national on the list of the US government’s most wanted terrorists and who was reported killed three years ago in what was media reports described as a “US-backed airstrike” in Jolo, Sulu.
Marwan’s remains, however, were not found in the aftermath of the dawn operation that left at least 54 persons dead.
$5 million + $1 million
The United States’ National Counterterrorism Center in its website said Zulkifli, 49, an engineer trained in the United States, is believed head of the Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia (MM) allegedly a terror group, and a member of the Jemaah Islamiyah’s central command.
“Since August 2003, he has been present in the Philippines, where he is believed to have conducted bomb-making training for the Abu Sayyaf Group,” the NCTC website said.
Zulkifli carries a $5m (220 million pesos) reward for anyone who could provide information leading to his arrest, the NCTC said.
Abdul Basit Usman, described by the NCTC as a Filipino citizen, a “bomb-making expert” with links to the Abu Sayyaf and the JI, carries a million dollar (44 million pesos) reward.
MindaNews asked Hoyer why the American troops were in civilian clothes and why the helicopters were not US military helicopters. When followed up mid-afternoon, Hoyer said he was “still working on it.”
MindaNews sources in the Philippine military said the civilian helicopters that were used on Monday are Evergreen helicopters based in Zamboanga City, where the JSOTF-P is also based.
Zamboanga-based journalist Frencie Carreon, who covered the US military there from 2000 to 2010 said the Evergreen helicopters “belong to an Alaska-based US private contractor subcontracted by the US military and deployed in the Philippines to help the US soldiers or their partners or beneficiaries, sometimes for medical evacuation, especially when there are persons in medically critical situations.”
Hoyer, in a text message late Tuesday evening, said the JSOTF-P “uses contract civilian helicopters to support its efforts to train and assist Philippine security forces in Mindanao.”
He said these helicopters “are flown by civilian pilots and provide 24/7 support to the JSOTF-P and when requested (by) our partners.” Examples of requested support, he said, “include casualty evacuation of security force personnel and occasional emergency humanitarian assistance support.”
Hoyer said this year alone, the helicopters “have supported AFP and PNP casualty evacuation operations from both Basilan and Sulu, for example,” and Mamasapano.
“All JSOTF-P support operations and specifically helicopter flight operations are coordinated with the AFP and the Philippine air traffic control services,” Hoyer said.
He failed to answer why the soldiers were in civilian clothes.
An Associated Press report on June 27 last year said the US was disbanding the JSOTF-P. US troops returned to the country in January 2002, through the Balikatan military exercieses, just a few months after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States, purportedly to “help ill-equipped Filipino forces contain a bloody rampage by Abu Sayyaf gunmen.”
The AP report said “US backed Philippine offensives whittled the militants’ ranks from a few thousand fighters — mostly drawn from desperately poor hinterland villages — to about 300 gunmen who survive on extortion and kidnappings for ransom while dodging military assaults.”
It quoted Hoyer as saying “our partnership with the Philippine security forces has been successful in drastically reducing the capabilities of domestic and transnational terrorist groups in the Philippines.”
Hoyer was also quoted as sayin the success had led U.S. military planners in coordination with their Philippine counterparts “to begin working on a transition plan where the JSOTF-P as a task force will no longer exist.” The AP report said “about 320 American military personnel left in the south,” citing Hoyer as the source.
A Philippine Star report on July 4, 2013, Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, chief of Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) said the JSOTF-P will remain inside the camp of Westmincom to continue to assist and provide support to the local military.
“What I know is that it (JSOTF-P personnel) was just reduced,” Guerrero said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)