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Aquino upset when he flew to Zamboanga on day of SAF-MILF clash – source

President Benigno Aquino III  INQUIRER FILE PHOTO / GRIG C. MONTEGRANDE

President Benigno Aquino III INQUIRER FILE PHOTO / GRIG C. MONTEGRANDE

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – “We knew he was not in a good mood. It was like he was having a bad hair day.”

This was how a Philippine Daily Inquirer source described President Aquino when he arrived on a chartered plane at the Edwin Andrews Air Base (EAAB) here in the morning of Jan. 25, at the height of the fighting in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, that left 44 police commandos, 18 rebels and five civilians dead.

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The source who was privy to the president’s visit in this city, said Aquino “was not smiling” when he came down from the plane past 10 a.m.

Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and his staff were with the President.

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Earlier that day, a C130 cargo plane landed. Its passengers included Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, AFP Chief of Staff General Gregorio Pio Catapang, Budget Secretary Butch Abad, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman and their respective staff.

Maj. Gen. Esmeraldo Magnaye, 3rd Air Division Commander, said the two aircraft did not stop at the usual ramp near Gate 1, but taxied towards the Base Operations office.

Both the Philippine Daily Inquirer source and Magnaye confirmed that the President did not leave the Base Operations office when he was inside the EAAB.

The President’s visit surprised the local government, which was informed afternoon of January 24.

“We were all surprised by the short notice,” a source from the city government said.

As soon as Aquino arrived at the Base Operations office, he called for a briefing, which was attended by the Cabinet secretaries; Mayor Maria Isabelle Salazar; 1st District Representative Celso Lobregat; 2nd District Representative Lilia Nuno; military officials like Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, chief of Western Mindanao Command; Chief Supt. Edgar Basbas of Police Regional Office 9; and Senior Supt. Angelito Casimiro, Zamboanga City Police director.

The 10 a.m. to 12 noon briefing was focused on the rehabilitation efforts of Zamboanga City.

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But at 1 p.m., Soliman, Abad, Salazar, Lobregat and Nuno left the room. The source said the President, Gazmin and all the military and police officers were left inside the room.

“Secretary Roxas came in and out of the room during the briefing,” the source said.

An hour later, Soliman and the others were told to return to the room and “were informed to be ready for the site visit and inspection.”

At 2:30 p.m., all the vehicles that would be used for the site inspection were on “engine ready mode” but it took almost an hour to wait for the President to come out.

“When he (Aquino) went out of the room, mas lalong aburido ang mukha nya (he looked even more upset),” the source said.

The site visit was scheduled for 10 a.m..

Aquino went to the site of the car bomb blast in Guiwan village at 3:30 p.m., and proceeded to the Zamboanga Peninsula Medical Center in Barangay (village) Putik to visit a wounded policeman, and to the Western Mindanao Medical Center on Santa Cruz Street where two blast patients were confined.

At about 4 p.m., Aquino went to the Zamboanga Doctors Hospital to visit two other blast victims, then to the La Merced Funeral Homes to meet with the families of two persons who were killed in the blast. He also visited another blast victim at the Ciudad Medical Center and 10 other victims at the Zamboanga City Medical Center in Santa Catalina village.

Around 5 p.m., the President and his entourage arrived at the EAAB.

“We were all expecting that the President would immediately leave,” the source said.

But another security briefing was held.

The source said he “peeped” inside the room and saw “images flashed on the projector’s screen– Google maps and timelines–and that was where I got a little idea that something was wrong.”

“At about 6 p.m., President Aquino and his top military and police officials moved further inside another room, which was out of our view. We called the other room ‘inner sanctum,’” the source said.

The source said whatever happened inside the inner sanctum did not show on Roxas’ face.

“He was not tensed, only President Aquino,” the source said.

At 7 p.m., Secretaries Roxas, Gazmin, Abad, Soliman and Catapang left the room to meet with members of the local chamber of commerce in a nearby multipurpose hall.

“Mr. Aquino never left the inner sanctum. Everyone (businessmen) was expecting to meet him, but the meeting proceeded at 7 p.m. without him,” the source said.

Pedro Pocholo Soliven, president of the Zamboanga City Chamber of Commerce, said Roxas hurriedly left the meeting.

“The President called Mar to proceed to the airport and they hurriedly left for Manila. Mar excused himself and cut short the meeting,” Soliven said.

This as another source said people from Malacañang were in Cotabato City in the afternoon of January 25, and were trying to coordinate with the military for the possible arrival of the President.

The source said the group was asking if the President’s plane could land at the Awang Airport from Zamboanga City. Apparently, the plan did not push through and one factor might have been the inadequate runway lights at the airport, the source said.

Last January 26, Roxas, Gazmin, the Philippine National Police OIC and Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, Gazmin and AFP chief of staff Gregorio Catapang flew to Maguindanao to get details and updates directly from the ground about the massacre of 44 Special Action Force commandos who clashed with rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

At around lunchtime, a briefing was conducted inside the headquarters of the military’s 6th Infantry Division in Awang, Datu Odin Sinsuat along with Getulio Napeñas, the SAF commander; 6th ID commander, Maj. Gen. Edmundo Pangilinan; and Western Mindanao Command chief, Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero.

Napeñas was trying to explain to the Cabinet secretaries and the police and military commanders the details of the operation, most especially about the coordination.

Sources said that Napeñas was already near Shariff Aguak on Saturday evening while the 84th and 55th Special Action Companies were already moving into position.

Napeñas allegedly claimed during the briefing that he sent a text message to Pangilinan at between 3 and 4 in the morning informing him that there was an ongoing operation in Mamasapano.

But Gazmin, who was silent during the entire briefing, spoke up and showed to Napeñas the mobile phone of Pangilinan, which revealed that the message was sent at 5:06 a.m., contrary to the claims of the relieved SAF commander.

The text message was Napeñas’ way of informing Pangilinan that a law enforcement operation was in progress supported by the ARMM and Maguindanao police and was coordinated with the Army’s 1st Mechanized Brigade.

“But there was no coordination with the local authorities and the military. And the time Napeñas claimed that he sent the text message was inaccurate. Why is he lying?” the source said.

Roxas was fuming when he arrived in Awang for the briefing, the source said.

“Was there a specific order from the President not to tell us?” Roxas asked Napeñas during the briefing.

But Napeñas refused to answer the question and instead divulged in the briefing that he was directly taking orders and was giving feedback to suspended PNP director general Alan Purisima on the developments in the operation.

This answer only made Roxas angrier, the source said.

The military said the troops, most especially from the 45th Infantry Battalion, were already geared up to respond as early as Sunday morning but were hampered by the lack of coordination and information.

Sources said the gunfire was clearly audible from the nearest detachment of the 45th IB, which is only at least 4-5 kilometers away from the scene of the firefight.

By Sunday noon, tanks and military trucks carrying heavily armed soldiers had rolled out from their camps ready to provide support.

But the questions remained, “where are we exactly going? How many friendly forces are in the area? Who and how many are they engaging?” the source shared.

Apparently, the lack of coordination by the PNP-SAF blindsided other security forces and left them with no other option but to wait for further details to complete the puzzle.

Even the artillery assets of the military were already awaiting command on Sunday morning but the leadership opted not to fire blindly as this would only put the lives of the commandos and even the civilians at risk.

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TAGS: 3rd Air Division, 6th Infantry Division, Angelito Casimiro, Armed Forces of the Philippines, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Benigno Aquino III, bloodshed, carnage, Celso Lobregat, clash, Corazon Soliman, Edgar Basbas, Edmundo Pangilinan, Encounter, Esmeraldo Magnaye, Florencio Abad, Getulio Napeñas, Gregorio Pio Catapang, gun battle, Leonardo Espina, Lilia Nuño, Mar Roxas, Maria Isabelle Salazar, Massacre, massacre of policemen, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, news, Philippine Army, Philippine National Police, Philippine National Police Regional Office 9, Philippine president, Regions, Rustico Guerrero, Special Action Force, Voltaire Gazmin, Western Mindanao Command, Zamboanga City Police Office
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