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Mario J. Mallari

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin yesterday branded as a “normal practice” for government authorities to seek assistance from the United States during medical evacuation of wounded men in uniform, but stressed US servicemen are not allowed to participate in the operation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
The Defense chief could not confirm the presence of American forces during evacuation of wounded members of the elite Special Action Force (SAF) who clashed with combined Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province.
Photographs have circulated showing several Caucasian-looking men assisting in the air evacuation of casualties using a civilian helicopter.
“I cannot confirm that (presence of US helicopter) but I saw the pictures but that is a normal practice whereby we ask assistance from the US forces to evacuate our wounded,” said Gazmin in a broadcast interview over dzRH.
“That is not part of the operation but we ask help because they have all the assets to provide the medical evacuation,” he added.
ACT partylist Rep. Antonio Tinio warned that President Aquino could face impeachment if found out that he allowed US participation in the Maguindanao operation.
Tinio questioned the presence of US troops during evacuation of wounded SAF.
He noted that the civilian helicopter captured on photographs was traced to Evergreen Helicopters, reportedly a contractor of the US Defense department.  
Gazmin also explained why it took time for the military to react in aiding the SAF commandos who were apparently pinned down by MILF and BIFF forces.
According to the Defense chief, the Army’s 6th Infantry Division was able to send armor assets and elements of the Division Reconnaissance Company around 8:20 last Sunday, or more than two hours after receiving request for assistance coming from the SAF.
The request for reinforcement, Gazmin said, came after the initial encounter between the SAF and the group of Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, a leader of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group, between 4:30 and 5 a.m.   
“Why it took too long? Because the coordination was made while they (SAF) were on their way to the target,” he said.
Gazmin added the SAF coordinated with the battalion deployed in the area to guard main supply routes and detachments.
“It should have been in the division level so that  it can be planned well. Like what the President said, their coordination lacked time,” he stressed.
The Defense chief also noted the targeted area was a big camp of the MILF and there was also presence of BIFF.
“In this kind of major operation, you need to plan very well,” Gazmin said.
Meanwhile, a long, slow procession of coffins draped in the Philippine flag poured out of military transport planes at Villamor Air Base in Pasay City yesterday, as the country mourned dozens of policemen killed in a botched anti-terror operation.
Marching to muted drums, uniformed commandos bore the numbered coffins of comrades brought home from Maguindanao, the scene of the worst loss of life by the country’s police or troops in recent memory.
President Aquino has declared Friday a day of mourning for the 44 men slaughtered in a cornfield last Sunday when their top-secret mission — to catch or kill one of the world’s most wanted Islamist militants — went badly wrong.
Relatives wept and hugged each other as a priest sprinkled holy water on the metal caskets, which were laid at an air base in front of a large national flag at half-mast. Cabinet ministers and lawmakers watched from the stands.
Almost 400 police commandos had swooped before dawn in the operation to hunt down Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, a top suspect in the 2002 Bali bombings and one of the United States’ most wanted militants, with a $5 million bounty for his capture.
But after killing a person they thought to be Zulkifli, the commandos came under devastating ambushes by at least two large guerrilla groups.
Police say Zulkifli was killed in the operation, although there has been no independent confirmation of his death. Police said a second target, Filipino militant Abdul Basit Usman, escaped.
The MILF suffered 16 dead or wounded in the fighting, said Teresita Deles, Aquino’s adviser on the peace talks.
The MILF maintains that it acted in self-defense and has vowed to pursue the peace process.                                            AFP

Gov’t, MILF blame PNP for massacre of 49 cops

Tuesday, 27 January 2015 00:00 Published in Headlines

The Aquino administration sided with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF) assertion that the Special Action Force (SAF) pursuit operation against terrorists in Maguindanao that resulted in the killing of 49 elite police units were not coordinated with the rebel group that the government is negotiating peace with as the Palace termed the clash between the SAF and the MILF as a “mis-encounter.”

Gov’t chief negotiator Miriam Coronel Ferrer echoed the assertion of her MILF counterpart Mohaqer Iqbal that “the PNP-SAF should have informed the MILF about its Maguindanao operation.”
The MILF also branded the “special operation” launched by the elite Special Action Force (SAF) as a violation of the ceasefire agreement.
MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar said that while he is not aware on who fired first that sparked the fierce clash, he stressed that there was no coordination made by the PNP with the MILF.
“I can categorically pronounce now that there was no coordination made and I think this is a violation to the provision of the ceasefire agreement or the AHJAG (Ad Hoc Joint Action Group) agreement,” said Jaafar.

Iqbal echoed Jaafar’s pronouncement even as he announced that the MILF leadership yesterday instructed its commanders in Maguindanao province to help defuse the tension in Mamasapano.
At press time, unofficial report showed that 49 members of the elite PNP-SAF and six MILF fighters were reportedly killed during clashes in Barangay Pidsandawan on Sunday.
It was gathered that among the SAF fatalities were four officers.
Chief Supt. Wilben Mayor, PNP spokesman, however, said the PNP is still verifying reports from the ground.
“Details are being verified. Secretary Roxas and Deputy Director General Espina are going to Maguindanao to get the accurate information on what really transpired,” said Espina.
An 11-hour gunbattle broke out after police entered the remote town of Mamasapano, held by the MILF, around 3 am Sunday.
The bodies of 49 police have been recovered from the town on Mindanao island and moved to an army camp, regional police spokeswoman Judith Ambong said. She did not say whether any MILF members were killed.
Police had been targeting two high-profile terror suspects in the operation.
“This is going to be a big problem,” the MILF’s chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said when asked how the fighting would affect the peace process.
But he and government officials said the ceasefire still held.
“We are not worried but it is a concern because, of course, there are people who do not want to join the majority, who will do everything to gain attention,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told Camp Aguinaldo reporters.
Jaafar said that further delay in the passage of BBL would render the conflict in Mindanao unsolved.
Jaafar said that the incident in Mamasapano, Maguindanao between the police elite Special Action Force (SAF) and MILF elements should not affect the talks concerning the BBL.
“I don’t think it will affect discussions of the BBL, I don’t think this should delay the process…because it will be disadvantageous to all parties concerned,” said Jaafar.
“So, if there is no Bangsamoro government because of the delays, because there is no law, there is no BBL, the situation in Mindanao remains as it is…there is still war,” Jaafar pointed out.
Technically, Jaafar said, that Mindanao is still at war.
“What we have here now is only ceasefire agreement that is why there is no shooting in the ground…but there is no solution to the real problem,” said Jaafar.
Jaafar stressed it will be a big disadvantage to the people if the BBL is delayed.
“It is not logical for anybody to delay the process f making BBL into law because it will be disadvantage to all parties concerned, it’s a big disadvantage especially to the people in the area,” said Jaafar.
Philippine national police chief Leonardo Espina and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas flew to Maguindanao on Mindanao island.
In a statement Espina said the police commandos were chasing a “high-value target” believed to be behind recent bomb attacks in the south. He did not elaborate.
Iqbal said they were trying to arrest a member of regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah called Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, among the United States’ most wanted with a $5 million bounty for his capture.
Malaysian bomb-maker Zulkifli is the most prominent of the 10 to 12 foreign JI members believed hiding in the Philippines. He went into hiding in the southern region in 2003 and has since been training local militants, according to the military.
Authorities were also allegedly targeting Basit Usman, commander of the BIFF Philippine Muslim rebel faction that is not part of peace talks.
Ceasefire monitors are investigating the incident, Iqbal said.
“This is the first encounter between the MILF and (government forces) this year. Hopefully, this will be the last,” Iqbal said.
“We are committed (to the peace process). For the MILF, the ceasefire still holds,” he said.
Over 1,000 people displaced by the violence have begun returning to their homes after the fighting stopped Sunday afternoon, mayor Tahirodin Benzar Ampatuan said.
The firefight in Mamasapano was only the second since the ceasefire. Two soldiers and 18 Muslim gunmen were killed in a clash on the southern island of Basilan in April 2014.
In a broadcast interview, Iqbal said that the MILF leadership ordered field commanders to do everything to contain the tension.
“The MILF is exerting all efforts to put a stop to these (clashes),” said Iqbal.
“In fact, the International Monitoring Team and the ceasefire committees of the government and the MILF and the highest military leadership of the MILF directed the ground commanders to do everything possible to prevent this from worsening, to contain the problem,” he added.
Both the PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have not issued official death toll on the clash.
Iqbal said that the clash was the first this year between the MILF and government forces –and a rare one since the MILF and the government of the Philippines (GPH) signed peace agreement in 2012.
According to Iqbal, some 100 members of the PNP-SAF entered an MILF known area in Barangay Pidsnadawan at around 3 a.m. Sunday without any coordination with the Joint Coordinating Committee on Cessation of Hostilities (JCCCH) and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) as stipulated in the peace agreement.
Iqbal cited reports that the PNP-SAF operatives came from Zamboanga, Caraga and even Manila.
“Members of the Special Action Force of the PNP reportedly attacked members of the BIFF.,,it looks like there was no coordination with the MILF forces,” said Iqbal.
Iqbal admitted that the area of encounter was an MILF position.
“Almost 90 percent of the area is MILF position…the BIFF is not that big and they transfer from one place to another…but maybe the problem was that our forces could have been hit also,” said Iqbal.
“But I don’t like to make any comment yet, there is ongoing investigation being conducted by the International Monitoring Team so we just have to wait for the report,” added Iqbal.
International monitors had joined members of the police, armed forces and government and rebel “ceasefire committees” in efforts to effect a truce, Ferrer said.
“We regret however that due to the involvement of other armed groups, some intermittent fighting continued,” she said.
Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr said the peace pact continues even as the bloody incident.
“The view of the administration has not changed. The peace process in Mindanao is important. It is important to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law and establishing the peace process continues,” Coloma said.
“We are still awaiting new reports regarding the whole incident that’s why we still have no conclusion as you have mentioned,” Coloma told reporters.
Coloma has also not commented when asked by reporters on whether the MILF is “sincere” in continuing peace process while “possibly” harboring terrorists.
“The PNP-SAF performed this mission with courage and professionalism. Based on recent reports, there’s high likelihood that the primary target Marwan has been neutralized,” Coloma said.
Police officials, however, claimed to have killed Jemaah Islamiyah militant Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, during the clash.
PNP-OIC Espina said that Malaysian Marwan, who is included in the United States list of most wanted terrorists with $5 million reward, and Basit Usman were the primary targets of the special operation launched by PNP-SAF.
“It is highly, most likely Marwan was killed,” said Espina during a press briefing at Camp Awang.
However, the body of Marwan was not pulled out from the area.
There were information saying that SAF elements were able to neutralize Marwan before clashing with combined MILF and BIFF.
This is the second time that government authorities have claimed the killing of Marwan, tagged in the 2002 Bali bombing in Indonesia that killed more than 200 people.
In 2012, the military reported the killing of Marwan during an air strike in Indanan, Sulu.
It turned out later that Marwan was not killed during the military air strike.
According to Espina, SAF operatives were already pulling out from the area when they were attacked by elements of the BIFF.
While evading the attacking BIFF, Espina said that the SAF operatives accidentally entered into MILF areas.
“There was mis-encounter in the process,” said Espina.
As of 4 p.m. yesterday, Espina said that there were 43 SAF members –composed of seven commissioned officers and 36 non-commissioned officers, were confirmed dead.
One NCO remains missing, said Espina.
Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II stressed the government’s commitment to the peace process and he maintained there was no intent to sabotage the peace talks.
Roxas pointed out that the operation’s targets were “high value” criminals tagged in bomb attacks in Mindanao regions.
Anti-Crime and Terrorism through Community Involvement and Support (ACT-CIS) Rep. Samuel Pagdilao yesterday asked Congress to immediately conduct a congressional inquiry on the circumstances surrounding the encounter last Sunday in Mamasapano, Maguindanao that resulted to the massacre of more than 40 members of police Special Action Force (SAF).
Pagdilao, one of the founding members of the SAF in the 80’s, condemned in the strongest sense the barbaric killing of some 30 members of elite police commandos in what he dubbed as the Mamasapano Massacre, to distinguish from the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre.
He likewise extends his condolences to the bereaved families of SAF troopers who perished in that ill-fated operation.
Pagdilao said that while the details of the actual encounter remains sketchy, Congress should not condone the outrageous and senseless death of PNP SAF troopers who are only carrying out a mandate under the law to serve a warrant of arrest issued by proper judicial authorities against a known wanted foreign terrorists.
Pagdilao said government should set a clear cut policy or protocol where law enforcers can perform their Constitutional mandates without obstruction in contentious territories that are subject of government peace negotiations so as not to endanger or put in jeopardy any ongoing peace talks. Charlie V. Manalo, Gerry Baldo, Joshua L. Labonera

By Mario J. Mallari

The Sulu Sultanate has branded the death of Saudi Arabian King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as a great loss not only to the Islamic world, but to all peace-loving nations.
Abraham Idjirani, secretary general and spokesman of the Sulu Sultanate, said that Sultan Esmael Kiram II and the newly-enthroned Datu Raja Muda Phugdal Kiram expressed the sultanate’s condolences to the Royal Family of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
“We wished to convey the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo and its constituents our fervent prayer for the death of Al Malik Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as in the earthly matters is a loss to international and regional affairs and cooperation among nations regardless of race, creed and faith,” Idjirani said.
“Sultan Esmael Kiram II looked at the late Saudi king as the epitome of peace and cooperation among nations,” he added.
The Saudi king died last Friday. He was 90 years old.
King Abdulaziz Al Saud is regarded as a reformer king, going against Saudi’s hardline clerics and a peace advocate for sponsoring the Arab Peace Initiative which attempts to address conflict between Palestine and Israel.
“We urged the Bangsa Suluk constituents in the Sulu Archipelago, Zamboanga peninsula and Palawan and in North Borneo (Sabah) to remember the wisdom and legacy of the late Saudi king in his desire to establish peaceful cooperation among mankind,” Idjirani said.
“Our condolences with all humility are extended to the Saudi Royal family in being also the descendants of the Hashimites tribe of Saudi Arabia,” he added.

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