Aquino went to Zamboanga to check blast–Palace
PRESIDENT Aquino was infuriated: Terrorists belonging to the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) had detonated a car bomb in the heart of Zamboanga City on Jan. 23, 2015, and had managed to smuggle firearms into the city jail.
“The President was really pissed off that time,” a ranking Malacañang official told the Inquirer last week, adding that he wanted to go to the city to check for himself the security situation there.
Mr. Aquino’s whereabouts in Zamboanga City have been questioned in light of renewed calls in the Senate to look into his role in the Special Action Force (SAF) operation to get wanted Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province, which resulted in the death of 44 police commandos.
From another Palace official and military sources, the Inquirer separately learned that on Jan. 24, 2015, Mr. Aquino was to fly to Zamboanga the next day, Jan. 25, the birthday of his late mother, former President Corazon Aquino.
One military official emphasized the gravity of the security situation in the city: The ASG planned to spring out of jail Benzar Indama, who is the brother of Abu Sayyaf leader Puruji Indama, and 56 other members.
It had been only less than two years since the Zamboanga siege, where a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) led by Nur Misuari, tried to take over the city, triggering the first urban combat in the country in years. The 2013 battle claimed the lives of nine civilians, 18 soldiers, five policemen and some 100 MNLF fighters.
The Inquirer was told that the President would stay in Zamboanga only after lunch and head back to Manila, presumably to visit the grave of his mother at Manila Memorial Park in Parañaque City.
Day of car bombing
The Jan. 23 car bombing killed two persons and injured more than 50. That day, two government assets had already been monitoring the movements of at least two suspected ASG members, according to the Palace official, and had even followed them to an alley near a car wash station in Barangay Guiwan, not knowing that a homemade bomb (IED or improvised explosive device) had been planted inside the car parked in front of a bus terminal.
Black smoke rose from the vehicle for several minutes. People thought it was only on fire. Then the deadly explosion.
In his speech during graduation day at the Philippine National Police Academy (PNPA) on March 26 last year, Mr. Aquino, already reeling from the Mamasapano debacle, said he was indeed aware of the counterterrorism operations in Mamasapano on Jan. 25 before he left for Zamboanga City.
But the President said that he went ahead with his plans to go to Zamboanga City because “there was no urgency in the text messages” sent to him, without mentioning that these came from then suspended PNP Director General Alan Purisima.
Mr. Aquino explained why the security situation in Zamboanga City was also critical to him: After the 2013 siege, he had ordered that the city be considered a “hardened site,” meaning it should be doubly secured and monitored.
“When I arrived there, I was shown pictures of a car that was used for the bombing, together with the house from which the suspects came. There were surveillance operations even in the places in which the bomb was set off. Here, I asked: If these policies and operations were followed, why was the attack not prevented?” the President had said.
“Over the next days, it was explained to me that there were no overt acts—as our intelligence
operatives call it—observed, acts which would have served as probable cause to accuse those inside the car,” he had said.
“Apart from this, almost two years have passed since the Zamboanga siege, and yet, local issues hindered the full completion of what needed to be fixed. This was why I also wanted to take the opportunity to have a thorough discussion with Mayor Beng (Maria Isabelle) Climaco (Salazar), to hasten the rehabilitation of affected communities.”
On Jan. 25, President Aquino left Bahay Pangarap in Malacañang at 8:30 a.m. for Villamor Air Base in Pasay City. Before boarding his chartered aircraft, accompanied by Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and then Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, he left instructions with the Air Force chief, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Delgado, about “the operations in Maguindanao.”
This caught Delgado by surprise. After the President’s chartered plane took off at 9 a.m., Delgado checked what operations the Commander in Chief was talking about.
When the plane arrived at Edwin Andrews Air Base (EAAB) in Zamboanga City at 10:25 a.m., President Aquino was accorded the usual arrival honors and was welcomed by Mayor Salazar and military and police officials.
The President and his entourage proceeded to the conference room at EAAB usually used by the Air Force for preflight debriefings. It was there where he stayed practically the entire Jan. 25, except for the times that he went out of the facility with a huge entourage to visit the blast site, the injured victims in the hospital, the funeral parlor for the wake of the two fatalities and the city jail.
It was also in this room where Mr. Aquino received a briefing on the ASG bombing and the housing assistance for residents who were displaced during the 2013 siege in the morning and the unplanned briefing on the Mamasapano debacle late in the afternoon.
With the President at the morning briefing were Gazmin, Roxas, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, National Housing Authority Chair Chito Cruz, then AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr., then Western Mindanao Command chief Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, police officials, military intelligence officials and Salazar.
The staff of the officials stayed at the EAAB lobby, ready with data or other materials needed by their bosses. They engaged in casual talk.
Gun smuggling in jail
As the meeting inside the conference room progressed, Mr. Aquino was getting irritated at the failure of the Bureau of Jail and Management and Penology officials to explain how the firearms were smuggled in the city jail.
He was also displeased by contrasting figures between the national government and city government pertaining to the rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts, particularly the housing projects for the thousands of displaced families.
Over two hours into the meeting, frazzled staff began looking for a white board. They found it inside a smaller room across the conference room. Minutes later, those at the lobby were asked to make way.
The President, with Soliman, Cruz and Salazar, stepped out and walked to the smaller room. They stayed there for an hour, their attention on the white board while someone scribbled on it. (Later in the day, the Inquirer saw a breakdown of figures on the housing project written on the white board).
It was already past noon. The Zamboanga briefing took nearly four hours. Most of the people had not eaten lunch, making do with biscuits, bottled water and chocolates.
Before 2 p.m., everybody was told to board their respective vehicles for the President’s blast site inspection and visits to the hospital, the wake and the jail where Indama and the other ASG members were detained.
Just as everybody had settled in their vehicles, they were made to wait for over half an hour. The President was still inside EAAB. He squeezed in a late lunch of crab and corn soup, and chips.
It was around 2:30 p.m. when the President got inside his white SUV. Gazmin, Roxas, Soliman and other Cabinet members rode a coaster that followed the SUV in the convoy.
The first stop was the blast site in Barangay Guiwan. Mr. Aquino stayed there for nearly 10 minutes. He appeared to ask questions and talked with the mayor and his security officials. He looked around the area with ripped signages and twisted metal.
From 3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., the President and his entourage visited the injured at Zamboanga Peninsula Medical Center, Western Mindanao Medical Center and Zamboanga City Doctors Hospital.
At 3:40 p.m., he went to La Merced Funeral Homes and spent some 15 minutes condoling with the families of the victims. Then he proceeded to Ciudad Medical Center.
It was around 4 p.m. when Mr. Aquino and his entourage reached Zamboanga City Medical Center.
It was not a leisurely visit to the hospitals and the funeral parlor. Everybody, including the Cabinet members, walked or ran as they followed the President, making sure they were inside their vehicles, ready for the next destination, before he got into his SUV and moved.
The President and his men arrived at the city jail past 4 p.m. and spent some 20 minutes there. His convoy left at 4:40 p.m. and headed back to EAAB.
If the mood at the base earlier that day was light, it was tense when the President’s entourage arrived at 4:45 p.m. Mr. Aquino and his security officials went straight to the conference room where the briefing on the Mamasapano incident began.
At the lobby, a military official told the Inquirer that 35 SAF commandos were dead in Maguindanao. The official said the reports were sketchy and the Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) was trying to find out exactly what had happened.
Suddenly, there was a predominance of military and police officials at EAAB.
Initial reports said the SAF encountered Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and then ventured into a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) camp, triggering another battle.
From the lobby and through a glass window, the President had a grim expression as he watched, with his top security officials, what appeared to be aerial shots of terrain.
When the meeting ended, Roxas and Gazmin proceeded to meet with businessmen at Camp Navarro to discuss the city’s rehabilitation efforts.
The Inquirer learned that the President had wanted to fly to Maguindanao that same night but was prevailed upon by Gazmin and the pilots not to do so because the Awang airport in Cotabato City was not equipped for night landing.
The President then thought of staying the night at Western Mindanao Command’s Camp Navarro so that he could fly to Maguindanao the next day. He instead decided to fly back to Manila.
It was almost 8 p.m. when the President’s plane took off. He arrived in Manila around 9:30 p.m. and proceeded to a restaurant to continue his meeting on the Mamasapano encounter with Gazmin, Roxas and other officials. The President had his first full meal that day at 10:30 p.m.
Mr. Aquino no longer proceeded to Maguindanao the next day. It was Roxas, Gazmin, then PNP officer in charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda and Guerrero who arrived at Camp Siongco, headquarters of the Army 6th Infantry Division.
By then, 44 SAF commandos, 17 MILF fighters and three civilians, including an 8-year-old girl, were dead.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.