Aquino vows justice for SAF 44
SILANG, CAVITE, Philippines — With God as his witness, President Benigno Aquino III told the country’s new police officers, on Thursday, that he was telling the truth about what he knew of the counterterrorism operation in Maguindanao that went terribly wrong as he took responsibility for the debacle.
Two months and a day after the bloodbath in Mamasapano sent his administration reeling from its worst crisis, President Aquino sought closure to the issue.
In his fourth address since the debacle, Aquino appealed for the public’s understanding for the decisions he had made in the aftermath of the Jan. 25 operation that took down Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, but ended tragically, including why he did not show up at the arrival honors for 42 of the 44 slain Special Action Force (SAF) commandos at Villamor Air Base.
Six of the fallen SAF troopers were graduates of the Philippine National Police Academy (PNPA).
Perhaps for the first time, too, Aquino said he “regretted trusting the people who concealed the truth” from him.
He did not name his friend, former national police director Alan Purisima, and sacked SAF commander, Director Getulio Napeñas, but the two police officials were the ones who knew most about the police counterterrorism operation called Oplan: Exodus.
As earlier reported by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the President said his speech at the 36th PNPA graduation rites would be the last time he would discuss Mamasapano, except if the congressional hearing on the gun battle would need “further clarification” from him.
The Chief Executive also asked the public to understand that he, too, was misled in the botched police operation. He stopped short of apologizing, as demanded by his critics.
“With God as my witness, I tell you the truth,” Aquino told the 246 graduates of the PNPA Lakandula Class of 2015 who were in formation at the Camp General Mariano Castañeda field.
The President stressed that the new police officers deserved to know the truth about how he arrived at the decisions he made on Jan. 25, just as Oplan: Exodus was already unraveling, even if he said, there would still be those who would doubt his words.
“I am aware of this: that no words will suffice to explain the deaths of our brave policemen. A report or a speech can never reflect the entirety of what is felt by a parent who lost a good child. All I can do, after saying all that must be said, and after doing all that must be done, is to ask for your deep understanding,” he said.
“Today, I say this once more: As President, I am fully responsible for any result—any triumph, any suffering, and any tragedy—that may be borne of our desire for lasting security and peace,” Aquino said.
As in his past narrations about Mamasapano, the President’s PNPA speech still left his critics asking why he included Purisima in the briefing for Oplan: Exodus even if he was suspended.
Aquino did emphasize that the debacle was the result of the failure to coordinate, a responsibility, which Napeñas himself assumed in his Jan. 9 briefing of Oplan: Exodus to him.
“Regardless of my anger for the disregard for the orders I gave, regardless of my regret for trusting people who concealed the truth from me, I can never erase the fact: 44 members of our police force are dead. And this happened under my term. Let me stress it: I will bear this basic truth with me to my grave,” he said.
The President said that he was “saddened by the fact that, despite my effort to give the families space to grieve, as they were to meet their fallen loved ones for the first time, some people found fault in this by calling me cruel or without regard for such loss.”
The President said that his absence at the arrival honors was meant to help the SAF families heal from their loss, and he did not want to face them still without answers to their questions why the commandos died.
“If my response was ‘I do not know,’ how could I help hasten the healing?” Aquino said.
“I am also saddened that our peace process has been affected by the sentiments connected to the result of Oplan Exodus. To every Filipino who has felt failure or has been hurt because of the events related to this operation: It is with the abiding humility that I ask for your deepest understanding,” he added.
He took exception to the failure of the PNP board of inquiry and Senate reports to seek clarification from him but instead speculated.
However, the President noted that at the very least, the two reports reaffirmed “the position we had taken from the very beginning”, that the SAF’s lack of coordination with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) “was a major mistake.”
“Yes, I am the President, but I am also human. I cannot read the mind of every person in front of me, and I cannot personally monitor every situation. But as I have promised, I will continue to do what is right and just. I will continue to exert every effort to serve all of you and to faithfully fulfill my sworn mandate. I am not saying that I am like God, who knows everything, but I have a duty to right whatever wrong I discover. And I assure you: We respect due process. Those responsible will be held to account,” he said.
The President recounted in his speech that without the sense of urgency in the updates he received from the Mamasapano operation, he proceeded to Zamboanga City on Jan. 25 to attend to the pressing security concerns there, following a bomb car that killed two and injured dozens.
He also wanted to discuss the rehabilitation efforts in the city, more than a year after rogue members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) attacked in September 2013.
But what was going on in Mamasapano was on his mind that morning, Aquino said, thinking that the operation had been completed.
However, it was only in the early evening that he was informed of the “true situation” of what happened to the 84th Special Action Company (SAC) Seaborne.
The President said he gave the order for the military to link up or at the very least deliver aid or medical supplies to the beleaguered troops.
The President told the new police officers that the most important question he wanted to answer following the tragedy in Mamasapano was one posed by the father of a slain SAF commando: “Why did you allow my son to go there? Why did you let him die?”
“I understand where such statements come from. I have repeatedly looked back on what I knew about what happened, and have thought about whether I had been lacking, and whether I could have done more,” he said.
Aquino emphasized that he would not allow the country’s uniformed services to go on a suicide mission.
He said that if a delicate operation were not turning out as planned, he would always be the “very first to call for its cancellation.”
“However, the version of the plan presented to me convinced me that adequate preparations were made, and that it would be executed correctly. I also assumed that all my orders would be followed, especially since I was dealing with professionals regarding the matter,” he said. Shalom F. Mapagu/Abe Cerojano
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