‘SAF unit failed to follow plan’
MAMASAPANO, Maguindanao—They were not supposed to be there.
Save for the 84th Special Action Company (SAC), all the units of the Special Action Force (SAF) which were deployed to get Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan,” were not in their planned positions when they engaged Moro rebels in a fierce gun battle on Jan. 25.
This was among the telling findings of the three-member board of inquiry (BOI) of the Philippine National Police during their visit Tuesday at “ground zero” of the disastrous police operation in Barangay Tukanalipao here.
Forty-four counterterrorism policemen were killed in the operation, which also left the peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in peril.
Director Benjamin Magalong, chief of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) and BOI head, said his team conducted an ocular inspection of the site before wrapping up their investigation into the worst debacle of state security forces in years.
Under heavy security and accompanied by local officials and media members, Magalong and his team walked about 3 kilometers and crossed two rivers to reach the site where 35 members of the 36-man 55th SAC were pinned down and killed by MILF rebels and the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
“Our objective is to find out the prevailing operating environment and other factors that contributed to their (police) movement and decision-making. We also want to know what influenced their judgment call,” Magalong told reporters.
“We want to know why the troops failed to move forward and failed to provide reinforcements. That would help us analyze how they made their judgment calls,” he added.
Visiting every stop the SAF troopers made during the operation, the BOI found out that the commandos were nowhere near the spots which they had identified as their position.
In fact, he said the 55th SAC, which was supposed to be the main reinforcement unit, was more than a kilometer away from the 84th SAC, the main attack unit which killed Marwan.
“They were not supposed to be there,” Magalong said, referring to the vast cornfield where the SAF troopers were met by heavy gunfire.
“They had identified ‘wait points.’ But they (the 55th SAC) were more than kilometer to the north, northeast location of the 84th SAC,” he explained.
What could have spelled doom for the counterterrorism policemen was their failure to arrive at their target location on time.
It also didn’t help that the SAF commandos, who came from different areas in Mindanao, were not familiar with the terrain of the marshlands in the combat area.
A senior PNP official involved in the investigation said the SAF troopers were supposed to get to the nipa hut where Marwan was staying between 1:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 25.
But the group arrived in their target area at only about 4:30 a.m.
“They were two hours late. For me, that factor was enough reason for the SAF leadership to call off the mission,” the official told the Inquirer.
The source, who asked not to be identified for lack of authority to talk with the media, said it was sacked SAF chief Director Getulio Napeñas who should have made that decision.
“It was a judgment call. Only Napeñas could best explain why he still let his men carry out the mission under those circumstances,” the source said.
Magalong told reporters that based on the board’s initial findings, the 55th SAC members did not follow their own specific position in the plan.
The 55th SAC was supposed to position a kilometer away from where they actually did in Sitio (settlement) Amilil.
Magalong said factors like unfamiliarity with the terrain could have called for a change in the original plan.
“Imagine you will travel early morning and you are not familiar with the terrain and you are carrying heavy things,” Magalong said.
He said the board wanted to find out what triggered the change in plans.
Magalong also said the 84th SAC, after neutralizing Marwan, exerted much effort to go to the location of the 55th SAC “but unfortunately they were not able to reoccupy” that position because of the heavy volume of fire.
“Some of the questions in my mind were answered when I came here but there are some I cannot reveal at the moment,” Magalong said.
He said the BOI would meet with MILF leaders, military officials and the police to get firsthand accounts of what happened.
But he said going to the site where Marwan was killed was not part of the BOI plan as there had been sightings of BIFF fighters in the area.
Magalong clarified reports that the military did not provide enough support for the SAF men.
“In fact, the infantry support maneuvered here,” Magalong said, pointing to the direction where heavy fire was coming from.
The BOI was accompanied by a member of the 44th SAF named John Lim, who was involved in the actual combat.
Behind banana tree
Lim recounted to Magalong how he barely survived the volley of fire from automatic rifles while he was taking cover behind a banana tree.
Magalong said what must have compounded the problem was that the bilateral call for a ceasefire was not immediately put into effect because of the BIFF’s participation in the clashes.
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