MANILA, Philippines — A fatal combination of factors — cell phones in a dead spot, a bomber plane running out of fuel, misjudgments, and lack of coordination among troops and rebels in the midst of a ceasefire — sealed the fate of the 14 Philippine Marines who were massacred in Basilan.
A nine-member fact-finding body spelled out the circumstances surrounding the July 10 ambush after questioning 20 witnesses, who included Marine officers, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commanders and residents.
The panel’s report, obtained by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, did not say anything about wrong radio frequencies reportedly given to military planes that had been ordered to back up the soldiers pinned down by hostile fire.
Neither did the report answer the question of who killed the imam (preacher) whose body was found at the battle scene with a gunshot in the head and a hack wound in the neck.
Nor did the report suggest that the Marines were “fed to the enemy” by some officials, as government critics have claimed.
The ambush occurred when Marine forces blundered into Guinanta village — which the MILF claims to be its territory — and the guerrillas opened fire after one of the soldiers’ trucks got stuck in mud. Ten of the Marines were later found headless.
One of the most heart-wrenching episodes cited in the report by the government-MILF panel was of the Marines deciding to withdraw even if they knew they were leaving behind some of their comrades.
Citing the account of GMA 7 reporter Jun Veneracion, the report said: “`He heard some of the soldiers saying that they had to sacrifice their comrades, otherwise, everyone will get killed as they were already surrounded by the enemy and it was already dark.”
“Some of them, accordingly, justified their action (rather) than be totally annihilated,” it said.
The MILF admitted firing on the soldiers, saying the latter did not coordinate with them. But the MILF denied its forces beheaded or mutilated the Marines.
“The incident could have been avoided had there been proper coordination and strict adherence to the established mechanisms pursuant to the General Ceasefire Agreement by both parties,” said the report.
There were 109 Marine officers and enlisted men in the mission to verify “persistent reports” that then kidnapped Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi was in the area. The team in an eight-vehicle convoy was led by Maj. Nestor Marcelino of the 8th Marine Battalion Landing Team (MBLT-8).
In his testimony, Maj. Minandang Macatoon admitted there was no coordination made with the MILF “because they were of the impression that (Guinanta) is not an MILF area.”
On the other hand, Lt. Col. Felix Almadrones, battalion commander of the MBLT-8, said he “presumed said coordination was made at the top level.”
The panel pointed out that MILF forces violated the ceasefire agreement “when they opened fire (at) the unsuspecting Marines…”
“The incident transpired when the Marines disembarked from their respective vehicles [after] one of their dump trucks [got] stuck in the [mud], and [they] took defensive posture to secure their perimeter, which the MILF misconstrued as attacking posture,” the panel said.
MILF commander Ustadz Hud Limaya said he saw the truck stalled in the mud and the soldiers going “uphill around 10 meters away from the road.”
“He felt threatened by the position taken by the Marines so they opened fire at them,” the report said.
‘Better we get them first’
Limaya testified: “Mabuti pang unahan na namin sila kaysa unahan nila kami. Kung nasa kalsada sila hindi naman sila gagalawin pero nag-spread na sila (Better we get them first before they get us. If they had stayed on the road, we would not have touched them, but they spread out).”
The report said the initial sniper shots from the MILF were fired around 9:30 a.m. after the soldiers tried for about half an hour to extricate the truck.
By 10 a.m., the Marines reported to headquarters that two of their men were dead.
On learning of the fighting, Brig. Gen. Edgardo Gurrea, co-chair of the coordinating committee on the cessation of hostilities (CCCH), and his MILF counterpart Von Al Haq discussed ways to prevent an escalation.
Also, Capt. Carlos Sol of the CCCH secretariat kept in contact with Satar Ali, member of the local monitoring team, to facilitate a ceasefire.
Dead spot for cell phones
At 11 a.m., Macatoon called Ali and asked him to tell the MILF “to stop firing because the Marines were not after them.”
Macatoon also called Dr. Safrullah Dipatuan of the MILF Adhoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), but Dipatuan said it would be difficult for him to intervene because the mandate of AHJAG had expired.
On the instructions of Al Haq, Ali called the MILF commanders involved in the firefight “but unfortunately could not reach them through their mobile cellular phones,” the report said.
“Barangay Guinanta was a mobile dead spot,” it said.
Ceasefire after seven hours
It was only at around 4:30 p.m. — or 7 hours after the first shots were fired — that Ali convinced the MILF commanders to effect a ceasefire.
The last firing was heard at 5:50 p.m.
The report said the “heaviest firefight” happened between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., when the Marines reported they were battling some 200 enemies. Three rounds of 105mm howitzers were fired at the MILF position.
“A helicopter gunship came but failed to provide close air support,” the report said. “Similarly, an OV-10 bomber plane also flew over but also failed to provide close air support and had to return to base due to fuel problem, according to Maj. Marcelino,” said the report.
At 5:30 p.m. the MILF “withdrew its forces 700 meters away from the encounter site.”
Regrouping at an elementary school, the Marines realized 10 of them were missing.
“They still entertained hopes that some of the missing-in-action were still alive and requested Satar Ali to tell the MILF not to harm them,” the report said.
Ali said the MILF did not have any captive and promised to look for the Marines.
Later that night, police reported the recovery of four beheaded bodies and three severed heads. Six more headless bodies and seven severed heads were found by an MILF team the next day.
Witnesses said the Abu Sayyaf got into the scene after the MILF had withdrawn.
It is ‘haram’
Two witnesses identified four Abu Sayyaf leaders — Suwaib Kalibun, Nurhasan Jamiri, Umair Indama and Buhari Jamiri — as allegedly responsible for beheading the Marines.
MILF member Nasser Atao said that when he returned to the encounter site to look for a missing relative, he saw the four men “in the act of beheading the dead bodies,” using a “pirak” (bolo), the report said.
He said he approached the group and told them to stop “because it was haram (prohibited) mutilating a dead person.”
Jamiri aimed his rifle at him while Kalibon asked why he was siding with the Marines when they had killed his two relatives.
Atao said the four men were ASG members and were backed by 10 followers.
He said he and his companions left to avoid trouble but reported the incident to MILF commanders, who were “furious over the beheading.”
Who killed the imam?
The body of 86-year-old Imam Hakanul was one of the mysteries of the day.
The imam’s daughter told the panel the Marines had asked for help in freeing their truck from the mud and she saw her father helping push the truck.
Later, she also saw him with his hands tied behind his back with a red nylon cord.
The Marines said not one civilian came to help them.
The imam was found with a gunshot wound in the head. His neck had been hacked.