Aquino briefed on ‘Oplan Exodus’ to get Marwan – Napeñas
MANILA, Philippines – On January 9, police officials, including then suspended Philippine National Police Director General Alan Purisima, briefed President Benigno Aquino III on “Oplan Exodus,” the covert operation to take down international terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan,” the sacked commander of the Special Action Force (SAF) told the Senate on Monday.
Speaking at the opening hearing of the inquiry by the Senate committee on public order, Police Director Getulio Napeñas said he, Purisima and Senior Supt. Fernando Mendez, the PNP Intelligence Group director, briefed Aquino on the “mission update” and on the “new concept of operations” for Oplan Exodus.
Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, the PNP officer in charge, and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, who has supervision over the PNP, were not at the briefing.
Napeñas said the briefing was held at Bahay Pangarap, Aquino’s house at the Malacañang compound.
In two addresses to the nation after the tragic commando operation, Mr. Aquino said that he was aware of the SAF mission and that he did his own investigation to find out how it ended in disaster for government security forces.
Aquino did not say that Purisima, ordered suspended by the Ombudsman in December over allegations of graft, had a role in the planning of the operation.
Neither did the President say who gave the order to launch the assault on Marwan’s hideout in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao province, early on Jan. 25.
Marwan, the primary target of the operation, was killed in an exchange of gunfire with the SAF assault team. But Basit Usman, the secondary target of the mission, escaped and 44 of the commandos were killed in gun battles with guerrillas from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and its splinter group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
Eighteen MILF fighters and five civilians were also killed in the 12-hour gun battle.
The disastrous ending of the operation was blamed on the lack of coordination with the military and the MILF, which were observing a ceasefire following the signing of a peace agreement between the Moro insurgent group and the government in March 2014.
But under the plan, Napeñas told the senators on Monday, coordination with the military would be “time-on-target,” meaning the military would be informed only when the commandos were already on the ground to prevent the mission from being compromised.
Oplan Exodus, he said, followed a string of aborted missions to go after Marwan and Usman.
According to Napeñas, whenever major operations against the two high-value targets were planned, the information was leaked because the targets were coddled by the MILF, which had many contacts in the police and the military.
This was the reason why a high level of operational security and secrecy was necessary for Oplan Exodus, he said.
The planning for Oplan Exodus started on Dec. 23, 2014, he said.
During the Jan. 9 meeting in Malacañang, he said, Mr. Aquino told him about the need for coordination with the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
“His excellency cited the coordination with the AFP that he earlier stated in his press statement,” Napeñas said.
After the briefing, Napeñas said he and Mendez went out but Purisima stayed behind.
“It was when he came out that [Director General] Purisima [told me], ‘Don’t tell the other two about this, just do it later on when we’re there. I will take care of [AFP Chief of Staff] Gen. [Gregorio Pio] Catapang,’” Napeñas said.
He said the “other two” were Espina and Roxas.
Napenas denied that he took orders from Purisima, saying he considered Purisima’s statement a suggestion and that it was he who was in charge of the operation.
He also denied that he was Purisima’s, or anyone else’s, protégé, and that he moved up the ranks through hard work.
Purisima, who had been involved in the previous attempts to capture Marwan before he was suspended, has resigned as PNP chief.
Under questioning by Sen. Teofisto Guingona III, Purisima admitted that two meetings on the plan to get Marwan and Usman were held in his house at PNP headquarters in Camp Crame, Quezon City, although he was already suspended.
But he denied ordering Napeñas to keep Oplan Exodus a secret from Espina and Roxas, saying that was only a “suggestion.”
Napeñas said he considered Purisima’s suggestion, but it was he alone who decided not to tell Espina and Roxas about Oplan Exodus.
“It’s not an order. It’s a judgment call on my part not to inform the OIC PNP,” Napeñas said.
“But I informed him [when] the troops were [already] on the ground because of the statement of General Purisima, which I considered in relation to the mission,” he said.
Explaining why he dealt with Purisima, who was supposedly not in the chain of command because of his suspension, Napeñas said he understood that Purisima was the “focal person” who was always consulted by President Aquino on the mission to get Marwan and Usman.
The suspended PNP chief was “constantly being asked by the President” about the operation, he said.
Aquino, however, did not give the order for the mission to proceed during the Jan. 9 briefing at Bahay Pangarap, Napeñas said.
“The President didn’t give an order. It was a mission update that was provided for,” he said in response to a question from Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV.
He said Purisima did not mess up the operation but instead provided vital information “through text messages.”
Napenas said it was clear to him that Purisima was under suspension and that Espina was his superior officer.
An emotional Napeñas denied that the SAF troopers had been ill-prepared for the task of getting Marwan under Oplan Exodus, and said that there had been rehearsals and exercises on movement at night to avoid detection, equipment were regularly checked and prepared, and participating troops were moved to their staging areas on January 21 to 23.
In fact, he asserted that the MILF, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and other armed groups that the SAF encountered in the Mamasapano raid suffered 250 casualties in the near-day long clash.
“The SAF troopers who made their way to Barangay Tukalanipao, Mamasapano, Maguindanao, are highly trained individuals. They know what they are doing and know what to do in times of adversity and hostility,” he said.
He said Supt. Raymond Train, the commander of the assault force, was able to take down 25 to 30 attackers. Train also believes the assault force of the SAF’s 84th Company, which was tasked to get Marwan, was able to shoot down 150 assailants, he said.
Police Officer 2 Christopher Lalan, the lone survivor from another SAF group in the operation, had said his group the 55th Company had taken down 100 members of the MILF, BIFF and private armed groups, according to Napeñas.
Napeñas said the body count on the part of the police commandos would have been fewer than 44 had the support they had requested came on time.
“Though I admit it may not have guaranteed zero-casualty on our part, but at the very least, had the artillery support arrived hours earlier, the number of casualties would have been way lesser than the actual figure we suffered,” he said.
Also during the hearing, Director Benjamin Magalong, head of the PNP’s Board of Inquiry looking into the Mamasapano clash, said there had been a “gap” between the plan of the SAF forces going after Marwan and what happened during the actual gun battle.
Magalong said the SAF Seaborne, which was tasked to get Marwan, took two hours longer than planned to reach the target because of the difficult terrain and strong river currents.
But it was eventually able to reach its destination. At 4:15 a.m., a call to the tactical command center confirmed that Marwan had been killed.
But “booby traps” in the area alerted BIFF fighters to the incursion of the government armed forces in the area, resulting in a firefight.
Another group of SAF commandos from the 55th company also figured in an exchange of gunfire with responding armed groups from the MILF and BIFF.
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