MANILA (AFP) – The Philippine military and police defended their actions Wednesday as an angry nation demanded answers following the slaughter of 44 police commandos in a chaotic anti-terror operation.
The policemen were attacked by at least two Muslim rebel groups, including one that signed a peace treaty with Manila last year, during a January 25 mission to capture or kill Zulkifli bin Hir, one of the world’s most wanted militants.
Giving his first public account, military chief of staff General Gregorio Catapang said troops could not respond in time to save the police unit that raided Zulkifli’s hideout on remote and swampy farmland in the southern island of Mindanao.
“We did not know the exact place where the (police) forces had to be extricated…. they were not telling us their exact location so it was difficult,” Catapang told a news conference.
Catapang, disclosing a summary of a military report of the incident to be submitted to President Benigno Aquino, said troops completed the rescue of the remnants of the force nearly 18 hours later.
Aquino and the military have been savagely criticised by the general public for failing to prevent the largest loss of military or police life in recent memory, with some calling for the president’s resignation.
Aquino has ordered a high-level inquiry into the bloodbath, which has also thrown in doubt a peace deal his government signed with the 10,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Decades of rebellion in parts of Mindanao had claimed more than 120,000 lives.
Police say Zulkifli was killed in the raid, but the report has yet to be independently verified.
Catapang said the military was not involved in the police planning of the operation, with local military commanders only asked to provide support in December without being given the timetable or specifics.
“When you go to war it takes time to prepare for this. This is not a party where you say, ‘Pal, let’s party tonight. Bring red wine’,” Catapang said.
Getulio Napenas, who directed the police unit that conducted the raid, disputed Catapang’s account and said the commandos’ detailed call for help was relayed promptly to the military.
“The board of inquiry will show that I had passed on the grid coordinates” of the trapped commandos, Napenas told a separate news conference.
Napenas, who was relieved from his post after the bungled raid, also said the top military and civilian officials were properly updated on the progress of the operation.
“They were there to execute a law enforcement operation but unfortunately they ran into the MILF and the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters),” Catapang said. “It was really a difficult situation and we just had to manage it.”
“Unfortunately their plan to exfiltrate (pull out) before being seen by the various forces there failed.”