MANILA, Philippines?Customs Commissioner Napoleon Morales Monday formed an eight-member board to investigate the alleged smuggling of an estimated P100-million worth of high-powered firearms in Bataan last week.
Morales appointed Simplicio Domingo, chief of the Bureau of Customs? legal department, to head the panel and gave him 30 days to put together a strong case against those behind the smuggling of the assault rifles.
The large cache of illegal firearms, mostly Indonesian-made Galil rifles, was discovered when customs police boarded a Panamanian-registered ship off the port of Mariveles on Thursday. Authorities confiscated 54 rifles worth about P25 million in five crates but noted 15 empty crates.
Arrested were 14 crew members of the MV Captain Ufuk but the ship?s British captain and his local contacts reportedly escaped on board a private yacht ?just minutes? before the raid.
Morales stressed the importance of the swift resolution of the case ?since this might affect our peace and order situation.?
?Imagine what would happen if a terrorist group got hold of those powerful weapons. It would certainly affect our internal security,? he said.
Customs intelligence chief Fernandino Tuason had speculated that the arms may have been bound for the private armies of politicians intent on running in next year?s election.
Solid evidence, not hearsay
?The fact-finding committee will ensure air-tight criminal cases based on solid evidence, and not just hearsay, are filed in order to convict (suspects),? Morales told the Inquirer.
Morales did not say if any of the Filipino contacts of the foreign arms smugglers had been identified.
?I want the investigation to proceed without delay. If the evidence so warrant, the fact-finding team should hold all other persons involved criminally,? he added.
The BOC has already filed cases for violation of the Tariffs and Customs Code of the Philippines and the country?s immigration laws against the ship?s South African captain and 13 Georgian crew members.
The South African, Lawrence John, claimed he had taken over as captain of the ship when the ship?s real captain, British national Bruce Jones, left on a yacht just minutes before the raid.
Morales later said the yacht was suspected to be the M/Y Mou Man Tai, registered under the name of one David Smith with his office address in Mandaue City, Cebu.
Coast Guard chief, Adm. Wilfredo Tamayo, earlier told the Inquirer that they were alerted by customs personnel about the presence of the suspected arms smuggling ship Thursday morning. The raid, however, did not take place until 4 p.m. that day.
Morales said he would ask Philippine National Police Director General Jesus Verzosa to temporarily hold the application for amnesty of all owners of Galil-type firearms and 9mm pistols, saying one of the empty wooden boxes which they recovered from the ship could have contained handguns of that caliber.
Morales said he has also sought the help of the Philippine Air Force and Philippine Coast Guard to locate the Mou Man Tai.
Morales? said his latest information was that the yacht was spotted somewhere near Palawan.