MANILA, Philippines — Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr., Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff, Wednesday sacked the Marine brigade commander in Basilan province, saying he wanted an officer to be with his troops in the raging battle against Moro rebels.
Faced with mounting casualties on the battlefront, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was to fly Thursday to Zamboanga City for a command conference.
“The President would like to assess the situation right there on the ground,” Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said at a news conference in Malacañang.
Esperon said the relief of Col. Ramiro Alivio, a member of the Philippine Military Academy Class 1979, was a decision of the Board of Generals, which he heads.
“We have to have a brigade commander that will be with the troops … during operations,” Esperon told reporters. He said Alivio had been directing operations from his headquarters in Isabela, Basilan, as his men suffered severe casualties on the battlefront.
“A brigade commander will be more effective if he would be near the troops during operations and so we have put in there a commander who I think would … take all the opportunity to be with his troops,” he said.
Col. Rustico Guerrero, head of the Marine Corps Training Center in Fort Bonifacio, will replace Alivio, Esperon announced.
Alivio confirmed to the Philippine Daily Inquirer his relief. “I welcome any move from the higher headquarters,” said Alivio, who declined to give further details. “I have no regrets. My conscience is clear.”
A ranking Marine officer who did not wish to be identified said Alivio’s relief was related to the July 10 incident in Al-Barka town in Basilan where 14 soldiers were killed. Ten of them were subsequently beheaded by members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Alivio is undergoing investigation for the incident, the officer said.
Esperon also disclosed that Alivio had supervised the movement of his troops that assaulted an Abu Sayyaf camp in Ungkaya Pukan town, also in Basilan, on Aug. 18 from his headquarters in Isabela City. That raid cost the lives of 15 Marine soldiers.
The military has lost 29 Marine soldiers in Basilan since July 10 and 27 Army soldiers in the campaign in Sulu province.
“I don’t contest the assessment of Colonel Alivio that he has to remain in his headquarters while the operations are going on, but I believe a brigade commander will be more effective if he will be near the troops during operations,” Esperon said.
It is “automatic” that when a brigade commander has two battalions on pursuit operations, “you should be in that operations, not in the headquarters,” he said.
Told that Alivio was not in charge of the Aug. 18 assault of the Abu Sayyaf camp in Ungkaya Pukan, Esperon acknowledged that Brig. Gen. Juancho Sabban, head of Task Force Thunder, was “in charge of the whole operations” on that fateful day.
“But I wish Colonel Alivio would have been more forward. I know that he could control the troops from where he was, but I would have preferred that he be nearer the troops,” he added.
Not end of career
Esperon stressed that Alivio would be assigned to another position where his intelligence background would serve the organization best. “If you ask me if this is the end of his career, no, he is a very good officer and therefore we will put him in another position,” he said.
Ermita said that from Zamboanga, Ms Arroyo will proceed to Bohol province on Friday to preside over a peace and security summit for Central Visayas.
He said that the President had ordered Cabinet secretaries to go to Mindanao to implement the “humanitarian offensive” to help the people displaced by the conflict.
The Marine officer, who declined to be identified, told the Inquirer in Zamboanga that personnel at the 15th Strike Wing, which provides assault aircraft to the 3rd Tactical Operations Wing (TOW) at Edwin Andrews Air Base, were also under investigation for the ditch landing of an MG520 attack helicopter on Aug. 18 on Umaloy Island in Basilan.
Col. Reynaldo Ramirez, commander of the 3rd TOW, said a technical problem was the main cause of the crash landing resulting in the death of 2nd Lt. Claudio Unaundo and the wounding of 1st Lt. Hermilino Calibiran.
Still to be investigated are the Aug. 8 and 9 clashes in Parang and Maimbung towns.
The officer said Sabban might be held “liable for doctrinal mis-utilization of the Force Reconnaissance Company (FRCoy).
“They are not meant to engage the enemy but to find them (ASG) for the infantry men, artillery or aircraft to attack,” said the officer.
The FRCoy is the unit of Marine soldiers that fought the Abu Sayyaf bandits in Unkaya Pukan on Saturday, leaving five junior officers and 10 enlisted personnel dead.
The FRCoy members were completing their training on close-quarter combat and were sent to the Abu Sayyaf lair in Unkaya Pukan as a test mission.
“The most that they (FRCoy) can do is to raid followed by a swift withdrawal, never pitch battle with the enemy,” the Marine officer added.
‘Doomed to debacle’
Citing the manner of how the FRCoy troops were utilized, the Marine officer said “they were doomed to debacle based on the intent of the operation.”
He said Sabban committed the same error during the Sept. 4, 2006, operation in Barangay Tugas in Patikul, Sulu, when the 1st FRCoy Class 12 under Lt. Romulo Dimayuga was sent on a test mission.
Dimayuga led a platoon of 27 Marine soldiers and encountered more than 200 bandits that led to the death of six soldiers and the wounding of 19 others, including Dimayuga.