“For the military it was an encounter,” Army Lt. Col. Monico Abang on Friday said, describing what happened at a police checkpoint in Atimonan, Quezon province, where 13 alleged criminals were killed in a supposed shootout with government security forces on Jan. 6.
Abang, commander of the Army’s First Special Forces Battalion, led the troops who augmented the police team led by Supt. Hansel Marantan at a checkpoint along Maharlika Highway in Atimonan.
Abang said that contrary to Thursday’s reenactment of the supposed shootout, which was based on the testimony of two eyewitnesses, his men fired only “warning shots” during the operation.
“They fired in the air,” he said.
“It was necessary,” he said. “Shooting had started so we fired warning shots,” Abang said in English and Filipino.
For Maj. Gen. Alan Luga, the commander of the military in Southern Luzon, however, what happened was a shootout and he was going by what Abang and the soldiers involved had told him.
“I stand by what my battalion commander said,” Luga on Friday said, referring to Abang’s statements. “That’s what he and the soldiers told me—they were fired at first, that’s why they retaliated,” he said in Filipino.
Luga said that according to Abang, what happened was a shootout between the government security forces and the men in two vehicles.
“All the soldiers were consistent in their statement that it was a shootout because they were fired at first and then they fired back,” Luga said.
“As the commander, I inquired from the soldiers and that’s what they said,” he said.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, quoting testimony from two witnesses who had seen the supposed gun battle, told reporters on Thursday that what happened was not a shootout.
But De Lima did not describe what happened, saying the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) was digging deeper to find out.
Abang spoke to reporters at NBI headquarters in Manila after turning to the investigators the firearms used by the Army troops who backed up Marantan’s team at the checkpoint.
He said he did not agree with some parts of the reenactment, although he did not say which parts those were.
Abang said he never saw the cargo truck where the two witnesses supposedly were throughout the incident.
He said he was in a vehicle positioned near the second of three checkpoints along Maharlika Highway when the shooting happened.
Abang confirmed that a military truck blocked the road when the two vehicles carrying the alleged criminals tried to crash the second checkpoint.
He described the shooting as “spontaneous” and said he saw Marantan hit, fall, and carried away from the area.
The Army submitted only 15 rifles to the NBI because 10 of the soldiers who were called in to support Marantan’s team remained in the Atimonan police station, Abang said.
Submitted for examination were M14 and M16 rifles and a .45-caliber 1911 pistol.
In good faith
The new military chief, Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Bautista, on Friday said the soldiers who were called in as an “augmentation force” for the police team at the checkpoint went there “in good faith.”
“That was what they (the troops) told me. They went there in good faith,” Bautista said.
Bautista was the Philippine Army commander when the supposed shootout happened. He assumed office as chief of staff of the military on Thursday.
He said the military was reviewing the procedures followed when the Philippine National Police (PNP) asks for help in law enforcement.
Crisanto Buela, the soldiers’ lawyer, told a news conference that the military has a witness who will contradict the statements of the government’s witnesses.
Buela said the military’s witness would testify that what happened in Atimonan was a shootout.
In a phone interview on Friday, Buela denied De Lima’s statement on Thursday that a soldier was one of those who shot environmentalist Tirso Lontok Jr. at the checkpoint.
Quoting the testimony of the two witnesses, De Lima said Lontok and another man got off the second vehicle with their hands raised, but “a uniformed soldier with a rifle and a civilian with a handgun” shot the two men.
“The testimonies of the witnesses are not true. There were no soldiers near the vehicle. The checkpoint was being manned by policemen because it was a police operation,” Buela said.
Buela said the soldiers from the First Special Forces Battalion were posted some distance away from the checkpoint because they were only acting as a support group to the policemen.
“The cops were the ones who flagged down the vehicles and not one of the soldiers,” Buela said.
Buela said the checkpoint was a legitimate police operation against the 13 men killed at the checkpoint.
One of those killed was Victor “Vic” Siman, alleged operator of the numbers racket “jueteng” in Southern Luzon and the sole target of “Coplan Armado,” the police operation that led to what Quezon police reported was a shootout.
The 12 others who were killed, including Lontok, were not listed as targets of Coplan Armado.
Lontok was hit 14 times. His body was found in a roadside ditch by crime scene investigators.
De Lima’s statement “only confirmed our theory that what had happened was not a shootout but a massacre,” said Ariel Saliva, a cousin of Lontok’s. “Kuya Jun and his company were mercilessly killed. We demand justice for all of them.”
Col. Donato San Juan, commander of the Special Forces Regiment, said Siman’s group fired first.
“We are also waiting for the result of the NBI investigation. I think it is very important to establish who fired first,” San Juan said.
Marantan gives up gun
Marantan, who drew up Coplan Armado, made himself scarce to investigators for several days. But on Friday, NBI doctors got to examine Marantan’s supposed gunshot wounds at St. Luke’s Medical Center.
Danielito Lalucis, head of the NBI Death Investigation Division, said Marantan surrendered his 9 mm Glock pistol and 17 rounds of ammunition.
NBI ballistician Jasmine Abarrientos said the firearm would be subjected to tests.
She said investigators could tell when the pistol was last fired through chemical analysis.
Lalucis said Marantan promised to submit to investigators a statement on the Atimonan incident.
Lalucis said St. Luke’s doctors turned over to the NBI the slug supposedly extracted from Marantan’s knee.
Forensic investigators were examining the slug, Lalucis said.
The Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC) disapproved Coplan Armado, which had been submitted to it for approval and funding in November last year.
But when he appeared at the NBI on Friday, Chief Supt. Reginald Villasanta, PAOCC executive director, inadvertently confirmed the statement of Chief Supt. James Melad, the sacked chief of the Calabarzon police, that the commission had given Marantan P100,000 in funding for the operation.
In a statement, Villasanta said he had formally told the NBI that the PAOCC did not approve the coplan.
“We at the PAOCC, through a board resolution, did not approve Case Operation Plan Armado . . . submitted by Supt. Hansel Marantan, Supt. Glenn Dumlao and Chief Supt. James Melad,” Villasanta said.
Money for intel only
But the same resolution authorized the release of money to Marantan’s team.
“Among the directives of the resolution was the release of P100,000 to Marantan’s group to help them in building an airtight case against their targets,” Villasanta said in the statement.
He explained that the money was intended for gathering information to back up the proposed police operation.
Villasanta clarified that the money released to the proponents was “only for intelligence purposes; it was not intended for operations.” With a report from Delfin T. Mallari, Inquirer Southern Luzon
First posted 12:01 am | Saturday, January 19th, 2013