Aquino briefs House on Exodus

MANILA  – Under pressure to tell everything he knows about Operation Plan Exodus, President Aquino briefed leaders of the House of Representatives yesterday about the raid that led to the deaths of 44 police commandos.

The briefing at Malacañang was given as the Senate resumed public hearings on the Jan. 25 operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

Palace officials pinned much of the blame for the deaths on the ground commander, Director Getulio Napeñas, who has been sacked as chief of the Special Action Force (SAF).

Aquino told the lawmakers led by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. that Napeñas bungled the operation by failing to coordinate with the Armed Forces.

Director General Alan Purisima, who has resigned as Philippine National Police chief, also failed to inform PNP officer-in-charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina about the operation as Aquino had ordered, the President told the congressmen.

During the meeting, the House leaders brought up the need for the government to help the bereaved families of the 44 SAF men obtain justice for the slain policemen.

“The President listened to the representatives’ views on how the killing of the PNP SAF troopers has given rise to a clamor among their constituents that the ends of justice be pursued, as part of rebuilding public confidence on the viability of the peace process,” Presidential Communications Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said in a statement.

The commandos had just killed Malaysian terrorist Zukifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, in his hideout in a remote barangay in Mamasapano, Maguindanao last Jan. 25 when they encountered Muslim guerrillas belonging to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. No reinforcements came for the trapped commandos.

Also present at the Palace dialogue were the chairmen of the House committees that conducted hearings last week, namely: Rep. Jeffrey Ferrer of the committee on public order and safety and Rep. Jim Hataman Salliman of the committee on peace, reconciliation and unity.

“Those who spoke at the dialogue with the President also brought up the need for ‘leveling off with the MILF’ on the parameters of their partnership with the government in the peace process including the containment of the BIFF; and their active cooperation in bringing those responsible for the deaths of the PNP-SAF troopers before the bar of justice,” Coloma said.

It was believed Purisima – then under suspension for a corruption case – had led the operation by “remote control” with President Aquino’s blessings. The former PNP chief earlier said his communication with Napeñas during the operation was only an advice.

At the Senate yesterday, Purisima said he informed the President that military reinforcements were already supporting the SAF units in Mamasapano even though this was not the actual situation on the ground.

Purisima revealed a portion of his text messages to the President when the operation was ongoing.

Interviewed after the executive session, Sen. Grace Poe stressed the need for the President to be always given the right information on the ground.

Poe noted that Purisima’s text messages to the President showed that the latter may have been misinformed about developments.

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda also blamed Napeñas for bungling the operation even as he stressed that questions will be answered when the final report of the PNP Board of Inquiry (BOI) is released.

“Why was he coordinating with Gen. Purisima?” Lacierda asked, referring to Napeñas.

He cited a Jan. 9 meeting between the President, Napeñas and Purisima who was already under suspension at the time, at Bahay Pangarap to discuss details about Operation Exodus.

Lacierda said Napeñas had stated in Senate hearings that operations against Marwan were done under Gen. Purisima.

“So it was when he (Purisima) was suspended that Gen. Napeñas was brought to the President. The President instructed Napeñas to coordinate. Coordinate with whom? It was a judgment call of Gen. Napeñas to inform 6th ID after the firefight started,” Lacierda said.

“The President instructed Napeñas – remember that those are direct instructions by the President – to coordinate with Gen. Espina. That was not followed. Why was it not followed?” Lacierda asked.

“Is that time on target coordination? It doesn’t seem to be time on target because otherwise the Army would have prepared beforehand,” the President’s spokesman said. “There was no coordination. Now, did he (Napeñas) inform the CCCH, did he inform the AHJAG? No, he did not,” he maintained. CCCH stands for coordinating council for the cessation of hostilities while AHJAG is ad hoc joint advisory group.

“The obligation of Gen. Napeñas to inform time-on-target CCCH was not done,” Lacierda said.

Zambales Gov. Hermogenes Ebdane defended Purisima from accusations that the latter was liable for overseeing the operation while under suspension.

Ebdane, who served as PNP chief during the Arroyo administration, expressed belief Purisima had the right to oversee an operation that he initiated.

“The initial information was fed to Alan Purisima about two years ago. He initiated the operation,” he told reporters in Baguio City over the weekend.

“He is suspended (as PNP chief) but does that mean the operation should also be suspended? No, even ordinary people should be involved until the end (of the operation) if he is the conduit,” Ebdane said.

Ebdane said Purisima should not be prejudged while the events leading to the Mamasapano clash remain unclear.

“Let us understand the situation. Let us not judge him if we do not know what really happened on the ground and I appreciate him because even if he is under suspension, he is taking responsibility,” he added.

Ebdane, who commanded the SAF from 1989 to 1991, said the public should not take advantage of the misery of the families of the fallen policemen.

“Let us investigate the incident but let’s not point fingers or vilify one another,” he added.

Members of the Board of Inquiry (BOI), meanwhile, are leaving for Mamasapano today to inspect the sites of the fighting between the SAF commandos and the MILF and the BIFF.

“One of the plans of the BOI under Director Magalong is to do a site survey at the exact site of the incident to compare the testimonies of the witnesses and actual site,” PNP spokesman Chief Superintendent Generoso Cerbo Jr. said, referring to BOI head Director Benjamin Magalong.

The BOI hopes to submit its report by Feb. 26. The BOI has so far gathered a total of 398 statements from 420 witnesses.

Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., for his part, urged the MILF to finish its internal investigation into the Mamasapano clash so that lawmakers can resume hearings on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).

During yesterday’s Senate hearing on the Mamasapano clash, Marcos – chairman of the Senate committee on local government which conducted public hearings on the proposed BBL – asked MILF peace panel head Mohagher Iqbal when the results of the group’s investigation into the incident would come out.

Iqbal said that the investigation is 90 percent finished and that they are just verifying some information.

Iqbal said that when the investigation is complete, he would ask MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, who is on a pilgrimage in the Middle East, for clearance to release the report.

“The hearings would not resume until the reports from the PNP, AFP, MILF and the other different agencies are completed,” Marcos said.

“We will wait, of course, for your report but if this is expedited then we can return to the hearings on the BBL sooner,” he added.

Sen. Ralph Recto said that several amendments would have to be introduced to the BBL and as such he urged the MILF and the other groups pushing for the passage of the proposed law to soften their stance against amending it.

Recto explained that the changes that would be introduced to the BBL are not meant to mangle the bill but to amend it so the final version would be acceptable to the “country, the citizenry and the Constitution.”

“When we propose revisions, it is out of the desire to improve the bill and not to impair,” Recto said.

“If the law is vague, then conflicts will arise during implementation, the resolution of which may be left for the courts to settle and we don’t want a law that would be plagued by court cases and TROs (temporary restraining orders),” he added.

Recto said amendments would also be introduced to “increase its chances of being approved by the people in the plebiscite to be called for its ratification.”

He urged the MILF and the other groups to welcome initiatives to improve the measure.

“First thing they should do is to drop the we-are-infallible stance. If you don’t want to change even a single sentence in the bill, then that policy of extremism won’t bring you anywhere. You must be open to other ideas,” Recto said.

“Otherwise, your bill will be dead-on-arrival in either of the chambers of Congress,” he added.

Meanwhile, Pasig City Rep. Roman Romulo joined the clamor yesterday for President Aquino to appoint a new PNP chief.

This would allow the PNP leadership “to fully restore order, discipline and the chain of command, and to move the 149,000-member force forward,” he said.

“Malacañang has to appoint a new PNP chief at once, considering that the next presidential election is just 15 months away, and whoever is named may need at least six months to get accustomed to the job,” he said.

The country’s presidential elections are often marred by campaign violence, including political killings that threaten peace and order, he said.

“We expect the forthcoming new PNP chief to push hard for a re-energized force whose officers are wholly committed to the utmost benchmarks of competence, skill, conduct and behavior,” he added.