MILF guerrillas watch from a distance as PNP Board of Inquiry visits encounter site  

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SITIO ALILING, Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, Maguindanao (MindaNews / 25 Feb) –“Tingnan nyo, basta may coordinate, wala talagang problema (See, if there’s coordination, there is really no problem), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commander Haramen said as he and his men watched from behind a row of banana plants on Tuesday  while members of the Board of Inquiry of the Philippine National Police (PNP) led by Director Benjamin Magalong walked across the cornfields where 35 of the 44 slain members of the Special Action Force (SAF) were found on January 25.

Unknown to the newly-arrived visitors, Haramen, operations commander of the 7th Brigade of the 105th base command of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), and his men – all of them armed – were, earlier that morning, mingling near the river with members of the PNP who were serving as the advance security team. By noon, across the river, elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines who helped escort Magalong’s team would line up to stand guard when the BOI team arrived.

A member of the MILF's Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces watches from a distance from under the shade of a banana plant the arrival of the Philippine National Police's  Board of Inquiry on Tuesday, February 24, at the cornfields where the bodies of 35 of the 44 slain SAF members were found. MindaNews photo by TOTO LOZANO
A member of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces watches from a distance from under the shade of a banana plant the arrival of the Philippine National Police’s Board of Inquiry on Tuesday, February 24, at the cornfields where the bodies of 35 of the 44 slain SAF members were found. MindaNews photo by TOTO LOZANO

Shortly before the BOI arrived, the MILF commander ordered his men to leave the treeline — a row of coconuts and bananas — some 150 meters from the riverbank, so the PNP security forces in uniform and in plainclothes could take over. The treeline has a vantage view of the cornfields.

Haramen and his men moved back about a hundred meters away, behind a row of bananas, to provide a second layer of security  for the visitors.

A village leader  led MindaNews to  where Haramen’s group was resting,  minutes before the BOI arrived. Haramen and his men were sitting on banana leaves, another one resting in his hammock.

“Nakipag-usap ka raw sa mga pulis kanina? Di ka natakot hulihin?” (You talked with the police earlier? Were you not afraid that you’d be arrested?”) MindaNews asked. “Bakit ako matakot? Di naman ako kriminal. Enkuentro yon pareho kaming armado” (Why should I be afraid? I am not a criminal. What happened was an encounter. We were all armed).

“Alam mo, kaming mga sundalo, naglalakad kami na ang isa paa ay nasa hukay” (You know,  soldiers walk with one foot in the grave), he said.

A group of policemen sat on the grass at the corner of the trail leading to where Haramen was, about a hundred meters away.   The MILF volunteered to have a banana plant felled so that the fruit could be boiled for the policemen’s lunch.

“Basta may coordinate, wala talagang problema,” Haramen told MindaNews.

The BOI’s ocular visit here was in coordination with the ceasefire mechanisms of the government and MILF.

Haraman, operations commander of the 7th Brigade of the 105th Base Command of the MILF's Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces says if there is coordination,, there is no problem. MIndaNews photo by TOTO LOZANO
Haraman, operations commander of the 7th Brigade of the 105th Base Command of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces says if there is coordination,, there is no problem. MIndaNews photo by TOTO LOZANO

Haramen, who claimed they were ambushed by the SAF as they were crossing the wooden bridge at around 4:30 a.m. on January 25, was alluding to how costly the price of non-coordination was that day, when 73 members of the 392-strong SAF deployed for Oplan Exodus entered barangays Pidsandawan and Tukanalipao before dawn to serve the warrants of arrest against Malaysian national Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwa and Filipino Basit Usman, both on the wanted list of the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation. Marwan was reported killed.

But 67 Filipinos were killed — 44 from the SAF, 18 from the MILF and five civilians – and the peace process between the government and the MILF adversely affected – following the tragedy that the MILF said could have been avoided had the SAF coordinated with the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) and the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), as has been the practice for years.

The government and MILF last year signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) and are presently working on the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law that would serve as charter for the new autonomous political entity – Bangsamoro – that would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Policemen waiting for the arrival of the Board of Inquiry at the cornfields of Tukanalipao in Mamasapano, Maguindanao last Tuesday, A hundred meters away from them, the MILF watched from a distance.  MindaNews photo by TOTO LOZANO
Policemen waiting for the arrival of the Board of Inquiry at the cornfields of Tukanalipao in Mamasapano, Maguindanao last Tuesday, A hundred meters away from them, the MILF watched from a distance. The MILF offered to boil bananas for the policemen’s lunch.  MindaNews photo by TOTO LOZANO

The peace panels have not been disbanded and will be disbanded only after an exit agreement shall have been signed, indicating that the CAB has been fully implemented. This includes the normalization process which involves decommissioning of firearms and the MILF as well as redeployment of the military and transitional justice and reconciliation.

The ceasefire remains between the government and the MILF.

Haramen and his men were among the first to clash with the 36 SAF members from the 55th Special Action Company (SAC) early morning of January 25. But Haramen said in a February 8 interview with MindaNews that they had no idea who they were fighting against until it was too late.

He said there was no advice from the CCCH and AHJAG about a government operation that day although at 4 a.m. he received a call from his superior that there were reports the military would operate and that they should proceed to their rendezvous base (RB).

MILF guerrillas rest under the shade of banana plants while other comrades watch from a distance the arrival of the Board of Inquiry at the Jan. 25 encounter site in Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, Maguindanao on Tuesday, February 24. MindaNews photo by TOTO LOZANO
MILF guerrillas rest under the shade of banana plants while other comrades watch from a distance the arrival of the Board of Inquiry at the Jan. 25 encounter site in Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, Maguindanao on Tuesday, February 24. MindaNews photo by TOTO LOZANO

Haramen said he and his men were on their way to their RB at around 4:30 in the morning of January 25 when they were ambushed, fired upon as they were crossing the wooden bridge. Two of their men were killed, he said.

He later ruled out the possibility that they were fighting government forces because if the armed men across the river were from government, the initial shots would have been followed by an air strike and artillery fire. But since there was neither, he said the enemies may have been a group who bore a “grudge” against them.

From an initial 35, Haramen said more MILF troops came to reinforce them until they had surrounded the 36 SAF members. Only one SAF commando survived.

Haramen said they turned over the firearms that they took from the bodies of the SAF commandos. But he declined to say how many came from his group. “Lahat-lahat yan galing sa 105th Base Command”).

He also denied having received payment for the firearms they turned over.

A total of 16 firearms were turned over to the ceasefire mechanisms including the CCCH, AHJAG and the International Monitoring Team last week. These were in turn handed over to the government peace panel and the Armed Forces of the Philippines which handed over the same to the PNP. Some parts of the firearms were reportedly “cannibalized.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas with a report from Toto Lozano / MindaNews)

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