MANILA (Mabuhay) – Contrary to criticisms, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. on Wednesday said President Benigno Aquino III did not break the chain of command for the Mamasapano operation that saw the deaths of 44 police officers from the Special Action Force (SAF).
Catapang said Aquino had informed them of the operation as early as November 2014.
Asked if the President broke the chain of command, he said, “Hindi po totoo ‘yun.”
“Totoo, nag-coordinate si President sa amin,” he said. “Hindi ko po masagot ‘yun kasi ang President na po ang sasagot bakit ‘di niya nasabi sa speeches niya.”
He added: “Matagal na ang planong ito. Oras at timing lang [ang] pinag-uusapan. ‘Pag may timing, may coordination… Coordination is about life and death,” he said.
Catapang said the President informed him first of the operation during the state visit to Singapore on November 18, 2014.
“Sabi niya, ‘Greg, mag-coordinate with PNP. Make sure there is detailed coordination. May operation ang SAF. Make sure you are well-coordinated,’” he recalled, adding that Aquino reminded him of it again on AFP Day on December 18, 2014.
He then told Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, chief of AFP Western Mindanao Command, who met with 6th Infantry Division head Maj. Gen. Eduardo Pangilinan, Maj. Gen. Emeraldo Magnaye, and now-sacked SAF head P/Dir. Getulio Napeñas Jr.
Catapang said Napeñas did not provide details during a supposed planning among the officials on January 23.
“Ang sabi sa akin ni Gen. Guerrero – kanina kausap ko siya – wala naman daw napag-usapan dahil ‘di dinala ni Napeñas ang intelligence chief niya. Nasayang ang meeting na ‘yun. And then all of a sudden, January 25, ni-launch ang ops without us being informed,” he said.
The 44 SAF troopers died in an hours-long gunfight with the MILF and its splinter group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. Twelve SAF men were injured.
The PNP-SAF launched the operation that day in order to serve arrest warrants against Jemaah Islamiyah leader Zulkifli bin Hir also known as Commander Marwan and Filipino bomb-maker and Abu Sayyaf member Basit Usman and whose presence had been confirmed in the area.
Catapang also countered claims that the AFP did not reinforce for the operation.
“Nandu’n kami when we were needed the most. Ang problema, little too late. Kung kailan bakbakan, saka nakipag-coordinate. ‘Di kami pwedeng umora-orada,” he said.
In a separate interview with Unang Balita, also on Wednesday, Catapang said the military could have engaged a coordinating mechanism with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front had they been informed before the operation was launched.
“Kung nakipag-coordinate sila, siyempre i-inform namin ang MILF na may operation kami riyan sa lugar na ‘yan, huwag sila makikialam,” he said, adding that it could have been done without giving away who the target was.
Catapang also said the incident was a “tactical fiasco,” and that Aquino had no liability even if he is the AFP’s commander-in-chief.
“It is a tactical fiasco na ‘di kasalanan ng ating mahal na pangulo. Ang nag-operate sa lugar na ito dapat mag-explain bakit nagkaroon ng ganitong engkwentro,” he said.
Catapang added that the AFP and the PNP have guidelines on joint operations, which includes the police’s coordination with the military’s nearest tactical unit “to ensure coordinated and focused operation in a particular area.”
In the Jan. 25 incident, Catapang said the SAF troopers were in the area to implement law enforcement operations but it turned out they figured in an encounter with the MILF.
He also said that had the AFP jumped into the fray at the time without prior coordination with the MILF, it would have made matters worse.
“Kung pumasok kami riyan ‘di kami nakipag-coordinate, baka ‘di lang giyera lang dito ang lalala. Kung na-escalate hanggang Lanao o buong Mindanao… Kasi sasabihin nila, ‘Bakit niyo kami inatake? Gaganti kami.’ They will attack other military units,” he said. (MNS)