Duterte to reopen Mamasapano probe “to let the truth out”

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/22 October) – President Rodrigo Duterte wants to reopen the probe on the January 25, 2015 Mamasapano tragedy that left 66 persons dead – elite police commandoes, Moro rebels, and civilians – “not really to prosecute people but just to know what happened.”

Duterte cited the Mamasapano Tragedy in his keynote address at the Philippines-China Trade and Investment Forum in Beijing, China on October 20, as an example of how Filipino lives are sacrificed in a war not of their own making.

“Filipinos, if you want to go to war, go. As long as it is really the desire of the nation, to protect itself. Forty-four Mamasapano soldiers, they went inside, they died,” Duterte said, apparently referring to the 44 members of the elite Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police (PNP) who were killed along with 17 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF) Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) and five civilians when the SAF launched its dawn operation, “Oplan Exodus” in Barangay Tukanalipao in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao.

Fellow police officers carry the caskets of slain policemen involved in the Mamasapano clash for boarding aboard Philippine Air Force C-130 planes that will take the remains to Manila. MindaNews photo by Froilan Gallardo
Fellow police officers carry the caskets of  members of the Special Action Force (SAF) who were killed in Barangay Tukanalipao in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, on 25 January 2015.  MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

“No dramatics, no nothing. No…Except that we grieve for our soldiers. Maybe in this — in the days ahead, I will order the opening of that issue again. Not really to prosecute people but just to know what happened?” Duterte said.

The mission of “Oplan Exodus” was to serve the warrants of arrest against two high-value targets – Zulkifli bin Hir aka Marwan, a Malaysian national allegedly involved in the Jemaah Islamiyah terror group and wanted by the United States government, and Abdulbasit Usman of the Abu Sayyaf. Marwan, who had earlier been reported killed in 2012 in what media reports described as “US-backed airstrike” in Jolo, Sulu, was killed in Mamasapano. Usman managed to escape but was killed a few months later.

The United States’ National Counterterrorism Center in its website said Zulkifli, 49, an engineer trained in the United States, was believed to be head of the Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia (MM) allegedly a terror group, and a member of the Jemaah Islamiyah’s central command.

Zulkifli carried a $5m reward (220 million pesos at the exchange rate of PhP 44 to one US as of January 2015) for anyone who could provide information leading to his arrest; Usman one million dollars (44 million pesos).

“Who got the five million (US dollars reward money for the capture of Marwan)? Whether the tip of the finger of Marwan, was gotten by the Special Forces of United States or was it really brought to the forensic division diyan sa Crame?,” he asked

“These are the lies that are imposed upon the people which is not good.  Let us go for the truth. Let it out,” he said.

The SAF members were killed in clashes with the MILF and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in Barangay Tukanalipao in Mamasapano, Maguindanao when they launched the mission without coordinating with the local military 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).

The involvement of the US military in the Mamasapano Tragedy was among the issues raised in its aftermath, particularly after photographs of American soldiers in civilian clothes were posted on social media a day after the tragedy.

On January 27, 2015 or two days after the tragedy, Kurt Hoyer, then the Press Attache and spokesperson of the United States Embassy in Manila told MindaNews that US troops were not involved in the operations.

“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,” Hoyer said.

Exactly a year later, on January 27, 2016, former SAF Director Getulio Napenas admitted before the Senate Committee probing the Mamasapano Tragedy that the SAF did not coordinate with the military, local police and the peace process mechanisms but it did with the United States government and its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Napenas said the US assisted with intelligence support on real time, training, equipment, humanitarian and medical evacuation “and also investigation.”

When Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, who had asked for the reopening of the probe, asked Napenas what he meant by “investigation,” Napenas replied it had something to do with the severed finger of Marwan which was handed over to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation for confirmation if its DNA matched with Marwan’s brother who was detained in the US.

Asked who conducted the training for the operations, Napenas said members of the JSOTF-P and some “civilian components,” prompting Enrile to ask if they were from the CIA.

Napenas said “to my knowledge, they should be working in that outfit,” later adding that “the word CIA (was) never mentioned in our dealings.”

Enrile asked if the Visiting Forces Agreement was the basis for this cooperation “or some other agreement with the US” but Napenas replied, “honestly, I don’t know, Your Honor.”

He said the VFA “to my recollection deals only with military cooperation between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States and does not cover police operations which is nothing more than enforcement of criminal laws in the Philippines handled by the police organization of the country and these criminal laws are territorial except for some exceptions.”

“Why did they allow police matter to include US participation? Am not saying I am correct but this has to be looked at,” Enrile said.

“Big elephant”

Reacting to Napenas’ testimony, Bayan Muna Rep. Karlos Isagani Zarate told MindaNews then that the “active direction, not just involvement, of the US in that war on terror operation is the big elephant in the room that the Aquino administration is desperately covering up.”

“The cover up includes the involvement of contract personnel — euphemism for mercenaries like the notorious Blackwater of Iraq — for easy deniability when things went wrong,” Zarate said.

He said President Aquino “treated like dispensable floormat the sovereignty provision of our Constitution for as long as he can please his US master, even at the expense of 66 Filipino lives and the fragile peace process in Mindanao.”

Senator Ralph Recto wanted to know if the finger severed from Marwan was like a lotto ticket that would be presented “to redeem a prize.”

Napenas said the finger was needed to confirm if the person killed was indeed Marwan.

Napenas said that aside from the million dollar reward, a seven million peso reward was also offered by the Philippine government for Marwan’s capture.

Senator Francis Escudero asked if the Americans knew about the operation, Napenas said yes, that the JSOTF-P headed by Col. Eric Brown knew.

Enrile asked Napenas what the US government’s interest was over Marwan. Napenas replied, “giving justice for people who died in Bali. More than 200 perished including Americans.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)