Purisima briefed Aquino on ‘Exodus’–Napeñas
On Jan. 9, police officials, including suspended PNP Director General Alan Purisima, briefed President Aquino on “Oplan Exodus,” the covert operation to take down Malaysian 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 committees on public order, peace and finance, Director Getulio Napeñas said he, Purisima and Senior Supt. Fernando Mendez, the PNP Intelligence Group director, briefed Mr. 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 in Bahay Pangarap, Mr. 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.
Mr. Aquino did not say that Purisima, ordered suspended by the Ombudsman last 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 with a $6-million price on his head, was killed in an exchange of gunfire with the SAF assault team. But Abdul Basit Usman, the secondary target of the mission with a $3-million bounty for his capture, 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 last year.
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 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.
Don’t tell ‘other two’
“It was when he came out that [Director General] Purisima [told me], ‘Don’t tell the other two about this, just do it later 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.
Napeñas 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 the PNP headquarters in Camp Crame, Quezon City, although he was already suspended.
Answering questions from Senate President Franklin Drilon, Purisima said the two meetings each lasted 30 minutes.
“They were just updating what was the progress of their operation,” Purisima said. “I did not give any instructions to them.”
Guingona pressed Purisima on keeping the mission a secret from Espina and Roxas. “In effect, you ordered him (Napeñas) not to follow the chain of command. What was on your mind? What was your motivation?” Guingona asked Purisima.
Advice, not order
Purisima denied ordering Napeñas to keep Oplan Exodus a secret from Espina and Roxas. “If ever I uttered words to that effect, it was in the form of an advice, not as a directive or order. This may be also in support of their plan that will inform everyone time-on-target,” he said.
Asked by Drilon about the difference between “command” and “advice,” Purisima answered: “A command should be followed; an advice may not be followed.”
Napeñas, Purisima added, could not have followed orders from a suspended PNP official, who was not part of the chain of command.
Napeñas said he considered Purisima’s statement, but it was he alone who decided not to tell Espina and Roxas about Oplan Exodus.
“It was not an order. It was 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.
Poe not convinced
Sen. Grace Poe, head of the public order committee, told reporters later that she was not convinced that Purisima only gave advice to Napeñas.
Poe noted that if a subordinate is brought by his superior to Malacañang, the subordinate will likely interpret his boss’ statement as an order even if there is no directive from the President.
Explaining why he dealt with Purisima, Napeñas said he understood that the suspended PNP chief 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.
Mr. 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,” 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.”
Napeñas said it was clear to him that Purisima was under suspension and that Espina was his superior officer.
Purisima denied giving the go-signal for Oplan Exodus, saying he was not even informed that the SAF commandos had already “jumped off.”
Napeñas, however, said he informed Purisima by text on Jan. 19 that the operation would be launched between Jan. 23 and 26.
Napeñas said the launch was part of a “continuing operation.”
“It was [I] who decided to go on that window,” he said.
Napeñas denied that the SAF had been ill-prepared for the operation, saying there had been rehearsals and exercises on movements at night to avoid detection. Equipment were regularly checked and prepared, he said, and the commandos were moved to their staging areas from Jan. 21 to 23.
“The SAF troopers who made their way to Barangay Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, Maguindanao, were highly trained individuals. They knew what they were doing and knew what to do in times of adversity and hostility,” he said.
He said Supt. Raymond Train, the commander of the assault force, took down 25 to 30 attackers. Train, he said, believed the assault force of the SAF’s 84th Company, which was tasked to get Marwan, gunned down 150 assailants.
PO2 Christopher Lalan, the lone survivor from the SAF 55th Company, which served as a blocking force, said his group took down 100 members of the MILF, BIFF and private armed groups, according to Napeñas.
He said the MILF and the BIFF and the other armed groups that encountered SAF suffered 250 casualties.
MILF, BIFF denials
The MILF denied Napeñas’ claim.
“Who will believe that? Maybe they also counted the rocks in the area,” said Von Al Haq, vice chief of the MILF for military affairs.
The BIFF also denied Napeñas’ claim.
“Napeñas is a liar. Why would he claim that the SAF were able to kill that many people when they were already pinned down?” said Abu Misri Mama, a spokesperson for the BIFF.
Mama, however, confirmed that BIFF guerrillas were among the fighters that fought the SAF’s 55th Company in the cornfield at Mamasapano.
He said the BIFF guerrillas took 10 high-powered firearms from the site, including a 90RR or recoilless rifle.
Napeñas said the SAF body count would have been fewer than 44 had military support the SAF requested come on time.
Also during the hearing, Director Benjamin Magalong, head of the PNP board of inquiry looking into the Mamasapano incident, said there was a “gap” between the plan of the SAF forces going after Marwan and what happened during the actual operation.
Magalong said the SAF 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 security forces in the area, resulting in a fire fight.
The carnage that ended the operation sparked widespread public anger and placed in doubt the completion of the peace process between the government and the MILF.
MILF ‘overkill’ condemned
Espina told the hearing that the PNP supported the peace process, but he condemned the treatment the SAF commandos received from the MILF guerrillas.
Granting that the SAF failed to coordinate the mission with the MILF, he said, it did not justify the MILF “overkill.”
“There was clearly no intent to let anyone in the 55th SAF Company to live,” Espina said, noting that many of the commandos were shot to the head with high-powered rifles at close range.
“They were stripped of their uniforms, firearms and personal belongings and cell phones,” he said, adding that the MILF guerrillas called the wives of the slain commandos to tell them: ‘Your husband is dead. Don’t call him anymore.’”
Espina said the patches on the commandos’ uniforms clearly identified them as government forces, but the MILF guerrillas proceeded to kill them despite peace talks between their group and the government.
He said that after slaying the commandos, the rebel forces tried to kill more.
“After killing my men in the 55th Company, they maneuvered and joined other forces in the area to kill some of my men belonging to the Seaborne Company. This after fully realizing that troops in there were from the government,” Espina said. With a report from Inquirer Mindanao
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