The government sacked the commander of the National Police’s Special Action Force (SAF) following the death of more than 40 police commandos in a clash with Muslim armed groups in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, over the weekend.

Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas and PNP officer-in-charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina made the announcement then claimed that they did not recieve prior notice of the elite police unit’s operation, which eventually turned into the bloody clash.

Director Getulio Napeñas was relieved as SAF commander pending the result of an investigation by the PNP, Roxas said in a press briefing in Camp Crame Tuesday.

“He (Napeñas) was given chance to help recover body of his men, but today he was recalled back to Manila,” Roxas added.

Espina said in the same briefing that SAF deputy commander Chief Superintendent Noli Taliño will replace Napeñas, in an officer-in-charge capacity.

“His (Napeñas) administrative relief will pave the way for the start of the board of inquiry, I would like to get to bottom of things,” he said.

The inquiry will be conducted by Directorate for Integrated Police Operations-Western Mindanao head Dir. Edgardo Ingking, Criminal Investigation and Detection Group chief Dir. Benjamin Magalong, and Directorate for Research and Development head Chief Supt. Catalino Rodriguez, Espina said.

Crame ‘not told’ of SAF operation

Roxas and Espina claimed that the DILG and PNP leadership were not informed of Sunday’s SAF operation in Mamasapano — which involved almost a battalion of police commandos in full battle gear — before it was executed.

“No… Ang masasabi natin, hindi ‘yan dumating sa command group,” Roxas said when asked if the operation was cleared with him.

“It did not reach the command group. That’s as far as I can say, everything will be tackled in the board of inquiry… It didn’t reach us,” Espina said for his part.

A total of 392 SAF members from different parts of the country participated in the operation, which targetted Malaysian Jemaah Islamiyah operative Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan and Filipino bomb expert Abdul Basit Usman, Roxas said.

“It was a legitimate operation,” Roxas said in a televised press briefing in Maguindanao on Monday afternoon.

Bitter pill

Roxas on Tuesday maintained his careful stance on how the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) — which just concluded peace negotiations with the government last year — was involved in the clash that followed the SAF raid.

As of Tuesday, 44 SAF members were confirmed killed while 12 are injured and 336 are unharmed and accounted for, Roxas said.

“Tuloy ang tiwala at kumpiyansa ng PNP sa peace process na bagamat napakalungkot, matindi ang kapaitan ng pangyayari, ang mas malawak na peace process ay mahalaga at kabahagi ang PNP sa pagsulong ng peace process,” he said.

The government and MILF signed a peace agreement March 2014 and are currently waiting for the approval of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which will implement their deal.

Congress’ deliberations on the BBL were suspended until investigations on the clash are completed.

Elements of the SAF were first attacked by members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), then had a “misencounter” with members of the MILF, Roxas explained.

The DILG chief also said Tuesday that investigators still have yet to determine if Marwan, who is wanted by the U.S. government, had indeed been killed in the SAF raid as earlier field reports indicated.

‘Justice’

Despite their toned-down stance, Roxas and Espina vowed to give “justice” to the slain SAF members.

“‘Yung pagbibigay ng katarungan ay sa dalawang paraan – filing ng kaso versus sa mga pumatay sa SAF heroes, kabahagi na nito ‘yung kung may lapses at pananagutin kung meron man, and honors and benefits,” Roxas said.

Espina said full honors, awards, and promotion will be given to the slain police commandos while benefits will be extended to their families.

“I will recommend the highest possible medals to be given — equivalent to a Gold Cross medal — to our fallen heroes. I will also recommend spot promotion of those who died in this operation. Full state honors, benefits will be given,” he said.

Director Rolando Purugganan, head of the Directorate for Comptollership, was tasked to facilitate and ensure the distribution of awards and benefits to the slain policemen and their families, Espina said.

Central Mindanao police take strong stance

While the DILG and PNP leadership kept statements at a low key, the Central Mindanao regional police outrightly condemned the killing of SAF members in Mamasapano.

“The bloodbath brought about by the brutal and cowardly doing of heartless rebel groups was such inimical and condemnable act,” Chief Superintendent Lester Camba, director of the Region 12 police said in a statement.

Camba’s statement came along with one from North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Mendoza.

“The incident is condemnable, we must not forget the series of bombings that occurred in the province of North Cotabato… Our elite special forces were going after two notorious bomb makers,” the police statement quoted Mendoza as saying.

Marwan and Usman, along with members of the BIFF, are blamed for the recent bombings in North Cotabato and other parts of Central Mindanao.

North Cotabato and Maguindanao share a vast, marshy border where bombing suspects and rebels who conducted attacks in previous years are said to be hiding.

“While we support our peace initiatives, our government troops who set law and maintain order in this civilized society should be respected and not killed,” Mendoza added.

Blast kills 2

As Tuesday wound to a close, a still unidentified type of explosive went off in Pikit, North Cotabato, killing two people.

The explosion occurred near a convenience store along Manuel L. Quezon st., Brgy. Poblacion, around 6:11 p.m., said Capt. Jo-Ann Petinglay, public affairs officer of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division.

Two persons on a motorcycle died on the spot because of the blast, Petinglay said in a text message.

The two are “suspected bombers killed by the premature explosion of the IED (improvised explosive device) they were carrying,” Senior Superintendent Danilo Peralta, director of the North Cotabato provincial police, said in a separate message.

Local police are still trying to identify the fatalities and the type of IED that went off, Peralta said. (John Roson)

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