GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/8 Nov) – With exception of few references to reports from Luwaran, the MILF official website, and to statements of top MILF officials, reports in national media had the military, Malacañang, Senate leaders, and Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process for their sources. This explains the slant of reports on the October 18 Basilan encounter.
To what extent should MILF be blamed and vilified for the death of the 19 SF troopers and the wounding of others? Should the military have any share of the blame? Two reports that never saw print in national media could balance the blame and vilification of MILF and consequently help the peace process move forward.
One report showed how the Basilan operation had been poorly planned. The report, “The Al-Barka Basilan Incident”, was written by Dana Batnag, correspondent of Jiji Press in Japan. She posted it on October 25, 2011 – most likely in her blog – vouching for its authenticity. On the same day, it was posted in Kusogmindanaw online discussion loop by Taher Solaiman; Amina Rasul, another loop member, subsequently commented that what Dana reported was also talked about in Zamboanga City.
The report opened with President Aquino III’s opening statement in Pilipino during his conference on October 24.
“Tayo nag-initiate, ng encounter. Tayo nalagasan ng ganoon karami. Automatic ang tanong, pinaghandaan natin ang operation, bakit ganito ang resulta?…ang pagkakamali, nasa tao. Pero ang paulit-ulit na pagkakamali, kasalanan na iyon. Hindi natin pwedeng pabayaan na magkaroon ng pagkakataon na maging paulit-ulit ito. Kung may mali, depekto sa sistema, ayusin na natin ito. Kung sa training, kung saanman. Hanapin kung saan ang sanhi bakit nagkaroon ng disaster. Ayusin ang mga problema.”
[We initiated the encounter. We lost that many. Automatically, it should be asked: Did we prepare? Why was the result like this? Making a mistake is natural to man. But repeating the same mistake over and over is grave error and should not be tolerated. If the system is defective, fix it – in the training, whatever. Find the cause of the disaster; remedy the problems.]
Evidently, the President was talking in reference to the military initial report discussed during the command conference on October 21. At an ambush interview at MacArthur Memorial Park in Leyte on October 20, he mentioned having received that report on the day before and the scheduled command conference. Excerpts of the ambush interview were published in the Official Gazette.
While he would not reveal the initial findings since investigations were still going on, Dana Batnag was able to take down some of the “findings” from “a printed report shown” to her. She also had interesting accounts from “survivors” which she called “hearsays” but truthfully admissible.
The initial findings showing poor planning:
1 The use of the students of scuba diving course to conduct combat operations was not authorized by the 1ID, WestMinCom and GHQ.
2 No deliberate mission planning was done which could have provided a thorough preparation and action during exigencies. This resulted to the following:
- During the planning and preparation, appreciation of the threat situation and the terrain in the area of operation were not properly considered and analyzed. The area is within the vicinity of MILF concentration. The implications of operating in the area were not considered despite the incidents in the past. Moreover, the CO, 4th SFBN miscalculated the intervention of MILF 114th Base Command.
- The commanders failed to consider the limited capability of 4th SF Battalion Forces and the students. Forces of 4th Scout Ranger Battalion or the 32nd Infantry Battalion could have been used if operation is properly planned or coordinated.
3 The U3, WestMinCom was told about the operation only at about 180700H Oct 2011. He was informed about the encounter at about 0900H.
4 The lack of proper coordination from higher headquarters delayed the use of air and artillery assets. Aside from the lack of jointness in the planning process, there was no participation of other arms services and the reserve force is very small composed of one SF team only.
- There was no operation order for the operations, hence, some of the planning process and considerations were neglected.
- The use of air and artillery assets was delayed due to poor planning. With the distance of the engagement area, it took sometime before reinforcements to arrive and the time to prepare the reinforcing troops.
The findings showing lack of command coordination:
“[The] 4th SFBN Commander initiated and launched the operation utilizing his own forces and the students of military scuba diving course class 42-11 without the proper authorization from higher headquarters.
“The Commander of SOTF Basilan was only informed of the operation the day before the troops jumped-off from their line of departures. Though, the SOTF Commander informed them of the enemy situation in the area and warned them regarding their inconsistent assessment of the MILF presence and possible engagement with the troops, the operation was still pursued.”
The stories told by the survivors may be summarized:
Reinforcements were asked as early as 5:30 a.m. The helicopters sent as early as 9:30 a.m. only picked up the wounded. By the time the reinforcements got to the site, according to the report, it was 4 p.m. The enemy had left. The officers who had asked for reinforcement were dead.
A reinforcing SF team under Capt Mallanao from Bato-Bato detachment was blocked by enemy forces. By 12 noon, a pair of Huey helicopters landed Scout Ranger troops in the encounter site. An hour later, two OV-10 Broncos bombed enemy position
That the October 18 Basilan tragic mistakes chastised the AFP command is implied in the press statements of AFP Chief of Staff Eduardo Oban Jr. concerning operations being planned against “lawless elements” in Basilan. Normally in military operations, good planning is presumed, is no longer emphasized in press briefings and reporters don’t ask.
At a press briefing in Camp Aguinaldo last October 24, he said: “We have crafted a deliberate and calibrated response; we just have to couple this with good intelligence work.” [Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 25, 2011: PAF bombs Moro rebels].
“In Basilan, we have to get intelligence information where these people are. You just do not enter into an area. There should be good intelligence work and deliberate plan of action. For now, we will have to exert and gather more intelligence before we launch calibrated and deliberate military actions.” [The Philippine Star, October 25, 2011: AFP: We will follow orders]
In Zamboanga City, talking about preparations “for another combat operation in Al-Barka” against the killers of the 19 soldiers, he said: “The directive is to continue the pursuit of lawless elements. Wherever they are, we are going to pursue them further. But then again, this should be driven by intelligence work because we are after [certain] personalities.” [Emphasis supplied. October 29: Next AFP target: Al-Barka]
By implication, the lack of proper planning and command coordination in the October 18 operation in Al-Barka, Basilan was admitted.
The General Staff Report of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces [Luwaran, October 28, 2011] detailed in chronological order the “events/facts” of the October 18 incident according to their investigation. They discussed these coming up with their “Findings and Conclusion” and “Recommendations” to portray the AFP as the aggressors violating the Ceasefire Agreement.
Here’s what happened chronologically:
The MILF forces noticed the movements of troops of the Philippine Army Special Forces under the Special Operation Task Forces in the afternoon of October 17, 2011. According to their information, fresh Special Forces graduates would be on a test mission to get Deputy Commander Dan Asnawi of the 114th Base Command – BIAF.
Two teams of Special Forces started their uncoordinated movements toward Barangay Cambug in Al Barka in early morning of October 18. The first team, which is more or less a platoon-size, reached the shore of Barangay Bato-Bato, Al Barka coming from the Navy ship. From Bato-Bato, they moved into Sitio Bakisung, Cambug on foot. Cambug, an adjacent barangay of Bato-Bato, is the native place of Commander Dan and the Asnawi families who are all members of MILF.
The second team, which is also a platoon-size, also commenced their uncoordinated movement on foot en route to Bakisung in early morning passing through Barangay Kabangalan in Tipo-Tipo to Barangay Guinanta, Al Barka – which is being identified as the Area of Temporary Stay (ATS) of the MILF. Before reaching Bakisung in Cambug, the team had to pass through Barangays Limbu Upas, Makalang, Danapa and Kailih.
On or about 5:15 a.m. of October 18 (Tuesday), the first team set their foot at Sitio Bakisung while the second team was already at Barangay Kailih. Kailih, an adjacent barangay of Cambug, is more less 200 meters away from Sitio Bakisung. The MILF forces were already on heightened alert to defend their positions and the community against the attacking government forces.
Fierce exchange of gun fire followed immediately. The two teams of the Special Forces clashed with the groups of Commander Munib Asnawi and Commander Marouf Asnawi. The forces of Deputy Base Commander Dan Laksaw Asnawi, taking a look-out position, manned the perimeter defense to block reinforcement for the Special Forces.
On or about 7 a.m., the MILF CCCH had informed its counterpart, the GPH CCCH, and the International Monitoring Team (IMT) of this attack of the Special Forces against the 114th Base Command – BIAF, and of the indiscriminate mortar shelling.
The fighting lasted for about eight hours – from past 5 a.m. to about 2 p.m. The government forces fired their 105mm cannons indiscriminately from early morning of October 18 until early morning of October 19 pounding Barangays Guinanta, Magcawa, Makalang, Danapa, Linuan and Cambug, all of Al Barka. Innocent civilians were severely affected. The Air Force bombarded the areas of encounter with air to ground rockets (missiles) from on or about 12 noon to 1:30 p.m. of October 18.
The BIAF Report corroborates the President’s admission that “Tayo nag-initiate ng encounter” and some “initial findings” of AFP as noted down by Dana Batnag. The main thrust of the Report is to pin the blame on AFP to counter the charges against MILF in the national media which foster the dangerous blame game.
(“Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently honored Mr. Diaz with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)