ZAMBOANGA CITY ? Reports of United States forces joining combat operations against the extremist Abu Sayyaf in Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi have been surfacing as early as 2002.
During one such incident?a military raid in Basilan on the evening of July 25, 2002?farmer Buyung-buyung Isnijal reported having been shot in the thigh by a man he described as ?not Filipino.?
Isnijal said he was roused from his sleep when soldiers from the 18th Infantry Battalion barged into his house at Barangay Canas in Tuburan town.
He said he tried to jump out of bed but a man, whom he described as ?malaki at maitim na tao? (a tall and black man) shot him in the thigh.
A subsequent investigation by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) found that an African-American soldier named Sgt. Reggie Lane had been assigned with the 18th IB in Lamitan town.
The same Sergeant Lane was also identified as among those who brought Isnijal to the Lamitan district hospital after the incident.
Among those who identified Lane was Dr. Julius Aguila of the district hospital. Aguila later died in an ambush.
AFP denied report
Col. Alexander Aleo, the then commander of the 103rd Infantry Brigade, confirmed the raid. He said Isnijal was a suspected Abu Sayyaf bandit.
Aleo said that during the raid, Isnijal tried to grab the gun of one of the soldiers so he was shot.
Isnijal and his wife Juraida have denied any involvement with the deadly Abu Sayyaf.
Aleo never commented on allegations that US forces were involved in the operation.
Former Southern Mindanao Command chief Maj. Gen. Ernesto Carolina and Maj. Richard Sater, spokesperson of the Joint Task Force 510, both denied that Lane was involved in the raid.
But during a fact-finding mission headed by University of the Philippines professor Walden Bello, Isnijal and his wife repeated the claim that an African-American was involved in the Basilan raid.
US forces were again implicated in a May 27, 2004 raid in Barangay Sipakot, Sitangkay, Tawi-Tawi.
Witnesses later told the CHR that four US soldiers participated in the operation directed at the Abu Sayyaf in which three seaweed farmers died.
On Feb. 4, 2008, eight civilians, including a pregnant woman and two children, were killed when the military, allegedly with help from US troops, raided Barangay Ipil, Maimbung, Sulu.
Octavio Dinampo, a professor and peace advocate, said ?several witnesses saw American soldiers at the height of the incident.?
4 US soldiers
A fact-finding mission to Ipil, which Dinampo joined, interviewed a Rawina Wahid, the wife of a vacationing soldier named Ibno Wahid who was among those killed in the raid.
Rawina claimed having seen four US soldiers inside a Navy boat where villagers who were seized after the raid were brought.
According to Dinampo, Rawina lost interest in testifying after she accepted a cash settlement. She has since relocated.
The CHR investigation into the reported combat involvement of US forces has gone nowhere.
Temojen Tulawie, provincial coordinator of the Sulu-based Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society, said the cases have been forgotten for various reasons, one of them being the aggrieved parties? willingness to settle.
?We really need to have answers to all of these. The questions of local officials are valid,? said human rights commissioner Jose Manuel Mamauag, who was a Western Mindanao prosecutor at the time of the incidents.
Several hundred US troops have been stationed in several posts in Mindanao since 2002, training Filipino counterparts and sharing intelligence in their fight against the Abu Sayyaf, blamed for kidnappings, beheadings of hostages and bomb attacks that have victimized Filipinos and Americans.
But allegations that US troops are violating the Constitution by engaging in combat with terrorists in Mindanao have roiled politicians, nationalist and leftist forces.
The furor has swiftly graduated into calls for the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement, which governs the conduct of visiting US forces.
The controversy was touched off by an announcement last week by US defense officials in Washington, D.C. that the US was maintaining a 600-member Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines (JSOTFP), which has been stationed in Mindanao since the VFA came into force in 1999.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago swiftly called a joint hearing of the Legislative Oversight Committee of the VFA, during which she cited two articles quoting Col. David Maxwell, the first commander of the JSOTFP, as saying that the Philippine Constitution did not prohibit combat operations, ?if there is a treaty in force,? and describing the US operations in Mindanao as ?under the guise of an exercise.?
At the committee hearing on Thursday, a retired Navy lieutenant, Nancy Gadian, alleged that US troops were embedded with Filipino units in combat situations in violation of the constitutional ban against foreign troops fighting in the country, and that the US troops were permanently stationed in the Philippines.
Santiago, who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee, said the government should abrogate the VFA for being ?vague? or renegotiate another treaty.
?Absolutely not true?
US officials have categorically denied that US troops are engaging in fighting.
US Army Col. William Coultrup, commander of the JSOTFP, said the charges concerning US troops were ?absolutely not true? and that he had never met Gadian.
?The role of the US forces in supporting the Armed Forces of the Philippines is very clear. Don?t engage in combat operation nor put ourselves where the combat operations are occurring,? he said.
Coultrup said their role was clear and that is only to provide assistance to the Armed Forces.
?The Visiting Forces Agreement is very clear. I?d like to say that the men and women of the Armed Forces of the Philippines are very brave fighters,? he added.
Secretary Raul Gonzalez, the chief presidential legal counsel, said the VFA should be renegotiated, not scrapped, adding that it was useful to have one than none at all.
Because of the furor over US troops, Gonzalez said he would recommend to the President that the treaty be reviewed and renegotiated. He said the VFA provides for a review anyway.
?A review can proceed to a renegotiation,? he said.
?What is important is that if there are questions which should be settled, we should renegotiate so that we can have better terms than the present,? Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said it was ?easy to allege? that the US troops in Mindanao were engaging in combat.
He dismissed Gadian?s allegations as not credible.
He said that Maxwell?s claims were his own ?interpretation? of the US forces? activities.
?That?s probably his interpretation of what they?re doing. Do they have any proof that the Americans suffered casualties or inflicted casualties on Filipino rebels? There?s none,? he said.
The best proof would be if the US forces suffered casualties or ?inflicted casualties? on rebel groups, he said.
Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said Malacañang would wait for what actions the Senate, the House and the Department of Foreign Affairs would take before making a decision on the VFA.
In the meantime, the Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement could look into the charges that the US forces were engaged in combat, he said.
Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, who visited Zamboanga City Friday, said he would vote against the VFA if a major provision under the VFA?s rules of engagement?which allows US troop to accompany Philippine combat units during combat operations?is not deleted.
The provision says that US forces should only act as observers ?but if in the judgment of the American commander on the ground that Filipino troops are not able or are not willing to fight the Abu Sayyaf Group, the American commander may make a unilateral decision over the troops.?
Biazon, a former Armed Forces chief, said he found the provision insulting.
Gonzalez said the issues raised by the case of Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith, such as criminal jurisdiction over US soldiers accused of crimes in the Philippines, were good starting points for a review of the VFA.
Calls for the abrogation of the VFA mounted last February over a custody furor concerning Smith, who was charged with raping a Filipino woman at the Subic Bay Freeport in 2005 but was acquitted by the Court of Appeals in April.
The Supreme Court ruled that Smith?s transfer to the US Embassy in December 2006 violated the VFA, and ordered the government to negotiate a new deal. But the US insisted on keeping him in its custody, sparking the furor.
The US and Philippine governments agreed to review the issue but Smith?s acquittal rendered the custody issue moot.
The left-wing group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) Friday said it would file with the high court next week a supplemental motion for reconsideration to a pending petition on the VFA. In 2007, Bayan asked the Supreme Court to scrap the VFA because of the Subic rape case.
Bayan secretary general Renato M. Reyes Jr. said they would ask the high court to allow the inspection of the camps occupied by US troops and, if possible, hold another oral argument on the issues raised. With reports from TJ Burgonio and Alcuin Papa, Metro Manila, and Jeoffrey Maitem, Inquirer Mindanao