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Drones ‘twinkled at night’

Overhead flights peaked on Jan. 24, say residents
A FARMER sends his carabao to graze on the site of a gun battle between Moro guerrillas and Special Action Force commandos in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao province, where 44 commandos died, many after making their last mobile phone calls to their families. JEOFFREY MAITEM/INQUIRER MINDANAO

A FARMER sends his carabao to graze on the site of a gun battle between Moro guerrillas and Special Action Force commandos in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao province, where 44 commandos died, many after making their last mobile phone calls to their families. JEOFFREY MAITEM/INQUIRER MINDANAO

DAVAO CITY—“Small planes that twinkled at night.”

At least a week before the Jan. 25 clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province, that killed 44 police commandos, 18 Moro guerrillas and five civilians, residents of the town had seen what members of a fact-finding mission said were US drones.

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Rep. Luz Ilagan of the Gabriela party-list group, said the sighting of drones over the town was among the findings of the mission that went to four villages in Mamasapano—Tukanalipao, Pidsandawan, Lusay and Tuka—to gather information about the clash between Philippine National Police Special Action Force (SAF) commandos and guerrillas from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Ilagan said the presence of drones in Mamasapano only bolstered reports of US involvement in the operation to get international terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan.”

Ilagan, a member of the mission, said villagers told her group that drone activity in the town peaked on the night of Jan. 24 and disappeared just after the carnage.

Ilagan said residents saw the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) “hover over their rooftops.”

“They called it small airplanes that twinkled at night,” she said.

UAVs are used for reconnaissance and surveillance. Operated by pilots on the ground, drones are also used for targeted attacks with bombs or missiles, such as air strikes against al-Qaida-linked terrorists in Afghanistan and Yemen.

Sources involved in the covert operation to get Marwan and his Filipino deputy Abdul Basit Usman said in earlier reports that the mission had been planned and executed with the help of US agents.

Seven days before the clash, Ilagan said, “the drones were already busy.”

“They were at their busiest the night before the encounter, which alarmed some women who thought there could be a military operation,” she said.

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“They couldn’t sleep because of the noise and they began to worry,” she said.

“But the women said they told themselves there was a ceasefire and a peace process,” she added. “That’s how confident they were that there would no longer be military operations.”

The women interviewed by the mission said they were surprised when they were awakened by gunfire early morning of Jan. 25, Ilagan said.

Impeachable offense

She said President Benigno Aquino III could be charged with an impeachable offense if it was found that the US government had a direct role in the operation to get Marwan that led to the deaths of 44 SAF commandos.

“Allowing Americans to have a direct hand in the operation would be a betrayal of the Constitution, a betrayal of public trust, a betrayal of the police commandos who died in that operation,” Ilagan said.

The SAF commandos killed Marwan in his hideout in Tukanalipao before coming under fire from BIFF guerrillas.

Unable to carry the body of Marwan, the commandos cut off his right index finger for use in identification through DNA tests. Then the commandos shot their way out of the village.

Usman was wounded in the firefight but managed to escape. He is reportedly being carried by followers who are moving toward the border between Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat provinces where they could be planning to take a boat and flee to either Sulu or Tawi-Tawi.

US help

The SAF may have pinpointed Marwan’s lair with US help.

According to a PNP official who is a former SAF officer, the US government has been providing technical and intelligence support to the Philippines since 2005 in the hunt for international terrorists who may have fled to the country.

The police officer is the same source who gave the Inquirer the video taken from a drone of the operation undertaken by the Armed Forces of the Philippines to take down Jemaah Islamiyah bomb expert Dulmatin in Tukanalipao in January 2005.

“The video was given to us by US agents for the SAF to study the terrain and the Liguasan Marsh, where Dulmatin was supposedly hiding,” the police official said.

The military operation failed because Dulmatin, one of the masterminds behind the

Oct. 12, 2002, bombings of two nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia, that killed 202 people, had moved out of the target area, the officer said.

The PNP official said that prior to the SAF operation, the Americans were working with the military.

“The Americans were coordinating with the AFP and they bombed the area but nothing happened. The AFP claimed Dulmatin was killed in that operation but it turned out he was still alive,” the police official said.

Indonesian counterterrorism police killed Dulmatin in a raid on his hideout in Jakarta on March 9, 2010.

“Since then, the Americans and the SAF had been working closely, especially that SAF personnel provided security for the [US] Embassy,” the police official said.

Contacted for comment, the US Embassy neither confirmed nor denied that the US government helped local law enforcers in pursuing international terrorists.

“You have an unverified source giving you alleged but an unverifiable video product,” Kurt Hoyer, spokesperson for the embassy, said in a text message.

No physical presence

Malacañang has not commented on reports of US participation in the SAF operation that took down Marwan.

Apart from technical support, “the US also gave us the location of the target,” he said.

“They were present in the planning, but to be fair, they were not present in the ground operation, no physical presence on the ground,” he said.

The officer said US agents also provided the SAF with intelligence on a target’s location through a “tracer.”

“A tracer is the person closest to the target, because that person is easier to access,” he said.

Probe US role

Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate said the House of Representatives should investigate the US role in the SAF operation to get Marwan.

One of the questions left hanging in the House inquiry into the Mamasapano clash is where Marwan’s finger was taken after the operation.

Officials involved in the operation were asked in the House hearing on Wednesday to confirm if the finger was turned over to US Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in General Santos City. There was no answer.

“We have our own investigation protocols, why did they have to bring Marwan’s specimen directly to the FBI?” Zarate said.

He said claims by top police, military and interior department officials that President Aquino did not have direct supervision over the operation were unbelievable.

“President Aquino was in Zamboanga City on the day of the encounter, which was his mother’s birthday,” Zarate said.

Zarate said the lives of the 44 SAF commandos were sacrificed in the name of the US global war on terrorism.

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TAGS: Abdul Basit Usman, alias “Marwan, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, biff, Carlos Isagani Zarate, Gabriela, guerrillas, Lusay, Maguindanao, Maguindanao province, Mamasapano, Mamasapano clash, MILF, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Pidsandawan, Rep. Luz Ilagan, SAF, SAF Commandos, Special Action Force, Tuka, Tukanalipao, Zulkifli bin Hir
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