By Karl Malakunas
Manila, Philippines |AFP| – US forces played a “substantial” role in a botched anti-terrorism raid in the Philippines that left 44 local police commandos dead, according to a Senate report released Tuesday.
The raid, known locally as Oplan Exodus, has plunged President Benigno Aquino’s administration into crisis and jeopardised efforts to end a decades-long Muslim separatist insurgency.
“US personnel played a role in the training before, and monitoring, of the… operation,” Senator Grace Poe told reporters as she released the findings of a committee inquiry into the January 25 raid.
“The committee found that the United States substantially invested in the entirety of Oplan Exodus. It provided equipment, training and intelligence.”
The raid sought to capture or kill two men on the US government’s list of “most wanted terrorists” who were living among Muslim rebels in southern Philippine farming communities.
One of the men, Malaysian national Zulkifli bin Hir who had a $5-million bounty on his head, was reported killed.
But the other, Filipino Abdul Basit Usman, escaped as rebels surrounded the police commandos and killed 44 of them.
A police inquiry earlier outlined a multitude of tactical errors that led to the slaughter of the commandos.
The Senate report said Aquino must “bear responsibility” for the deaths.
But it also raised questions about the accountability of the United States, a longtime military ally of the Philippines that has so far declined to outline its role in the operation.
Three unidentified Americans were brought into the local army brigade headquarters during the operation, creating tensions with the Filipino military commander at a crucial time, the Senate report said.
“One of the Americans ordered Maj. Gen. Edmundo Pangilinan to fire the artillery,” the report stated.
“However Pangilinan refused and told him: ‘Do not dictate to me what to do. I am the commander here’.”
Concerns over US influence
Responding to the Senate report, a US government official told AFP: “This operation was planned and executed by Philippine authorities. We refer you to them for details of the operation.”
The United States provides military training and intelligence to the Philippines in its counter-terrorism efforts.
US forces are not allowed to engage in combat under the terms of an agreement between the allies—a deal Poe said there was no evidence to suggest had been breached.
But, citing US training, equipment and intelligence, she said there were concerns that Washington’s influence on the Philippine National Police (PNP) was too strong.
“This raises a question of whether the PNP leadership would have entered into such a risky and hazardous operation without the support of the United States and the five-million (dollar) reward offered for Marwan’s capture.”
Aquino’s public support has plummeted to its lowest level since he took office in 2010 because of the botched raid, according to a survey released on Tuesday.
His public approval ratings fell to 38 percent in the first week of March, from 59 percent last November, polling firm Pulse Asia said.
Aquino’s term ends in the middle of next year and the constitution does not allow him to run for re-election.
But his plunging popularity could weaken his ability to secure congressional support for his most important remaining initiatives, as well as damage the election chances of his hoped-for successor.
Aquino is also hoping to finalize a peace pact with the nation’s biggest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and end a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since the 1970s.
But the raid has left the peace process in jeopardy, with Congress suspending hearings on the proposed law that would implement the pact.