Thursday, January 29, 2015

Up to 50 Special Action Force commandos killed in botched Philippine raid

The death toll is rising from the botched raid by commandos of the Philippine Special Action Force in the southern province of Maguindanao as the body count has risen from thirty after first reports to almost fifty or even more now.

Al Jazeera reports the death toll is at least 43 police commandos. The Inquirer put the death toll at 49. National Police Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina said 44 commandos were dead and 12 others wounded. Some Muslim rebels said as many as 56 of the commandos were killed. Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas told a news conference: "Out of 392 "special action force" policemen who took part in the mission, 44 were killed and 12 others wounded." However, a local source told Al Jazeera that 43 bodies of police officers had been recovered but as many as 64 had been killed according to local media. Earlier reports had put the death toll at around thirty commandos. These commandos are members of the elite Philippine Special Action Force(SAF) . They have in the past received training from 2 FBI groups, the French, and the Israelis: The SAF, over the years, has received training from the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) and Critical Incident Response Group, RAID and YAMAM.[2][3] The Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) of the PNP-SAF is responsible for nationwide Police Counter-terrorism (CT) operations nationwide. 
 After this disastrous raid now called the Mamasapano incident after a village where some of the clashes happened, Philippine president, Benigno Aquino III, has ordered an investigation into the clashes. The head of SAF has been relieved of his post pending completion of the inquiry. The ten thousand strong, Moro Islamic Liberation Front(MILF), claims that in making the raid, the Philippine government violated a ceasefire agreement. The commandos failed to coordinate with ceasefire observers. The commandos were apparently after a high value target: Local reports said police were going after Basit Usman, commander the MILF splinter group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and Malaysian bombing suspect Zulkifli bin Hir, who was believed to be hiding in the area.The Malaysian national, also known as Marwan, has been identified as a leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, Southeast Asia's largest al-Qaeda affiliate. The US has offered $2 mln for the capture of Usman, and $5 mln for Marwan. 
MILF originally was part of the larger Moro National Liberation Front(MNLF). The Bangasamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) are in turn an offshoot of MILF who refuse to accept the peace deal with the Philippine government. Philippine officials claim there is a high likelihood that Marwan was killed during the battles but there has been no confirmation of this. MILF leaders said Marwan was not even in the area at the time of the raid. He has been reported killed before only to reappear. He is a suspect in the Bali bombings. The raid appears to have been based upon quite faulty intelligence that resulted in a raid on a MILF commander rather than the BIFF commander Basit Usman. The MILF is part of a peace agreement while BIFF has no such agreement. Subsequent to the attack on the MILF, BIFF fighters in the area seem to have ambushed the commandos resulting in the large number of casualties. BIFF spokesperson, Abu Misry Mama, said the firefight started when police attempted to raid the suspected hideout of Basit Usman that was actually the house of a certain Ustadz Manan, a sub-commander of MILF 105th base command under Zacaria Goma. Not only did the commandos not coordinate with ceasefire observers but they did not coordinate with the local authorities or even the Philippine armed forces and units in the area.
 Robert Alonto, a senior MILF leader said: "It is but a natural reaction on the part of the MILF forces to defend their areas when it is invaded by armed elements, especially in the wee hours of the morning or in the dead of the night." Alonto also said that the commandos may have wanted to take credit for capturing or killing the high-value target without involving the military. It may be too that they did not want anyone else to know so that the target would not be tipped off about the attack. The attack may put into question the peace deal signed by the government and MILF last year after years of fighting that has claimed at least 120,000 people, mostly civilians, innocent victims of clashes. Some Philippine lawmakers are withdrawing support for a bill that would implement the terms of the cease fire. The MILF and BIFF are both sending more fighters to the area to fend off any attempt by Philippine forces to pursue rebels after the clashes. 
President of the Senate Franklin Drilon said: “I condemn the unfortunate and unwarranted encounter between the members of our Philippine National Police and the Muslim rebels. I sympathize with the victims and their families. We are at a crucial point in our history as a nation where we are in the process of creating and embedding peace in Mindanao, that is why we denounce to the strongest terms any act that poses a grave risk of thwarting every success we have made so far in the peace process." He demanded an explanation of the clash. President Aquino has already ordered an investigation. Drilon said that the incident should strengthen the government's resolve to find a peaceful solution. 
Many Philippine lawmakers, blame the MILF for the incident, rather than the risky attack uncoordinated attack by their elite commandos based upon faulty intelligence. Some legislators have demanded that the MILF surrender those involved in the battle with the commandos to the authorities and to return the weapons and equipment seized. Many of those involved were not even the MILF but BIFF. The MILF may have little if any control over their actions. The peace process has already been sabotaged by the attack as the panel considering the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law has been suspended pending the completion of an inquiry into the clash with the commandos.