Americans’ presence in retrieval of cops’ bodies sparks criticism
MAMASAPANO, Maguindanao—Was the US government behind the operation that led to the deaths of 64 elite police forces here on Sunday?
This was the question posed by a militant Moro group following the sighting of at least four Americans here in the aftermath of the gun battle, the bloodiest since the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed a peace agreement with the government.
A Philippine Daily Inquirer correspondent on site also saw the four Americans, who came in via a white and green Bell helicopter.
They helped extract the dead policemen.
Amirah Lidasan of the Suara Bangsamoro said it was not the first time US soldiers were seen after clashes involving government troops and rebel or other armed groups in Mindanao.
“The permanent presence of US troops in the conflict area conditions the minds of the public to the need for their assistance, glossing over the fact that it was due to the continuing obedience of the Philippine government to the US global war on terror that military and police do the operations based on false reports,” Lidasan said.
She said most of these false reports had led to encounters with local Moro armed groups in the past.
Capt. Jo-anne Petinglay, regional military spokesperson, said the US forces seen here had no hand in the operation that led to the devastating loss of lives on the part of the government.
She said they merely helped in evacuating wounded policemen.
“They were on the scene on humanitarian grounds,” she said.
But Lidasan would not buy Petinglay’s line.
“Congress and Senate should start its investigation on the reports of the presence of US troops in conflict areas and are always seen right after combat operations,” she said.
She said previous reports even had it that US troops were leading Filipino troops in actual combat operations as part of their joint military training, which violated the terms of reference of their stay here in the Philippines.
For the police and military, the concentration was finding and recovering all the casualties in Sunday’s clash, said Petinglay.
She said there was no plan, yet, as of Tuesday, about another operation against the perpetrators of the carnage.
But Petinglay said an investigation had been started by a team that Malacañang formed to determine the circumstances that led to the firefight.
The police said the ill-fated unit of the Special Action Force was in this town for a “law enforcement operation” against Malaysian bomber Zulkifli Bin Hir, alias Marwan, and local terror suspect Basit Usman.
Zulkifli is on Washington’s list of most wanted terrorists with a $5-million bounty while Usman carries a reward of S2 million.
“The priority right now is to process the papers of slain policemen, identify them and notify their loved ones,” Petinglay said.
In Mlang, North Cotabato, Mayor Joselito Piñol ordered a 12-day mourning for the slain SAF members and to fly the flag at half mast.
“Let us show our deepest sympathy to the respective families of our police whom we consider heroes in our modern time,” Piñol said.
North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Mendoza has condemned the carnage, adding she did not care “whether (the operation was) motivated by the bounty or breach of the ceasefire …”
“Our elite special forces were going after notorious bomb makers,” Mendoza said.
She said she and other officials would like to continue fully supporting the peace initiatives with MILF but said “our troops who maintain the law and order in this civilized society should be respected and not killed.”
In Cotabato City, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Gov. Mujiv Hataman said Mindanaoans should “not allow the shocking, violent incident between police and elements of the MILF on Sunday derail the gains of efforts to bring peace in Mindanao.”
He said while the loss of lives was “unfortunate and heartbreaking,” the situation could be best addressed and resolved with the rule of sobriety than allowing “biting emotions and anger” to prevail.
“With no doubt, it was a painful and a difficult situation for all of those who were involved, but we are calling for sobriety and calm,” said Hataman.
Hataman said he agreed with Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas that the clash was a case of misencounter.
“No one wanted this to happen and we hope that nothing of this kind of incident will ever happen again,” said Hataman.
“We are asking everyone to be calm as the government and the MILF look into the matter in the hope of finding answers and justice,” he said.
The misencounter, according to Roxas, happened when the SAF team maneuvered inadvertently to an area controlled by the MILF without advanced coordination after deciding to withdraw their action to arrest Jemaah Islamiyah bomb experts Usman and Marwan.
Ghadzali Jaafar, vice chair for political affairs of the MILF, said the decision of the Senate to suspend the hearing on the Bangsamoro Basic Law following the bloodshed was counterproductive as it also suspended the establishment of peace in the region.
“Once the approval of the peace process is delayed, the implementation of the agreement will also be delayed, thus causing delays on the establishment of peace in Mindanao,” Jaafar said by phone.
Jaafar said Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano’s withdrawal as author of the proposed law appeared to have been based mostly on emotions.
“I think Cayetano was only emotional when he made the decision. But he should understand that the issue will not be resolved through his withdrawal. This would mean that his support is not that decided,” Jaafar said.
“The main cause of this conflict is the Bangsamoro issue and it is a political issue. It is about the desire of the Bangsamoro people for our own government which is under the government of the Philippines,” Jaafar said.
Jaafar also urged politicians not to capitalize on the gun battle.
“I am not talking about any particular persons but maybe, there are political leaders who wanted to pursue higher positions and would use the peace process for their political ambitions,” Jaafar said.
He said an impartial investigation should be immediately done to clarify the issues and to avoid speculations that would disrupt the talks.
“The right thing to do is to first conduct an impartial investigation most especially on why the law enforcement operations were done by the PNP without coordination and not taking into consideration the mechanism of the talks,” Jaafar said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate also supported the call for an investigation.
“Even as we condemned the loss of lives in these incidents, Congress must also conduct a thorough investigation, particularly on the Maguindanao encounter since it appears that there was breakdown in the established mechanisms agreed upon by the GPH (Government of the Philippines) and MILF,” Zarate said. Reports from Jeoffrey Maitem, Williamor Magbanua, Allan Nawal, Germelina Lacorte, Karlos Manlupig and Julie Alipala
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