Radio error did Marines in
Reinforcements can’t contact troops on the ground
MANILA, Philippines — The wrong radio frequency, plus the failure to inform the military official concerned, severely curtailed the capability of the Marines to fight back during the bloody July 10 encounter in Basilan province that left 14 soldiers dead, 10 of them beheaded.
An investigation by the Armed Forces of the Philippines revealed that the 1st Marine Brigade in Basilan had provided the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) based in Zamboanga City the wrong radio frequency, preventing communication with the troops who were then under attack from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Barangay Ginanta in Albarka town (formerly Tipo-Tipo).
As a result, helicopters sent as reinforcement could not fire because they had no contact with the troops on the ground, a source privy to the investigation but not authorized to speak to the media, said. The helicopters hovered for two to three hours over the scene of the battle but had to turn back because they were running out of fuel.
Contact with the ground troops was vital because the helicopter gunners needed to know the exact positions of the Marines and their attackers, the source said.
The AFP concluded its investigation into the encounter two weeks ago but did not disclose details of its findings. The joint government-MILF panel has also completed its own investigation.
More government troops were being sent to Basilan to hunt down 130 people placed on the original list of suspects in the ambush, Rear Adm. Emilio Marayag, chief of the Naval Forces in Western Mindanao, said in Zamboanga City.
But the government-MILF team said it found only 10 people were involved.
In Manila, acting Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales said witnesses had identified four Abu Sayyaf members as the ones who decapitated at least four of the Marines.
It was not clear who beheaded the other six, and Gonzales said there were “indications … that at least two of the six may have been alive when they were beheaded. They were tortured before being beheaded.”
The fact that the wrong radio frequency was relayed to Westmincom was nothing but “pure incompetence,” said the source.
This also reinforced criticism that some of the Marine commanders who are in Mindanao right now have insufficient field experience. They were thrust into operations because a number of the battle-tested field commanders are in jail on charges of having taken part in the so-called February 2006 coup.
“The Marines are really outraged with what happened in Basilan,” said another source aware of the rumblings in the corps since the encounter.
Malacañang pulled out 65 Marines detailed with the Presidential Security Group and sent them to Mindanao to take part in the offensive in Basilan on July 21, a source said.
A radioman of the Command Group under Maj. Nestor Marcelino has submitted an affidavit to AFP investigators attesting that the wrong radio frequency was relayed to Westmincom and, in turn, was transmitted to the pilots. Marcelino was relieved of his duties shortly after the July 10 encounter.
“Indeed there was no contact with the aircraft,” said the source, who also based his statement on interviews with survivors.
Contrary to earlier reports, the helicopters were not pulled from scene by Westmincom, the source said. Instead, the pilots, on their own, cancelled the mission, he said.
Lt. Gen. Eugene Cedo, Westmincom commander, was in Cagayan de Oro City at the time of the attack.
But investigators found out that a senior Westmincom officer based in Zamboanga City was not informed by his subordinates of the encounter until 4 p.m. that day. Fighting between the soldiers and the MILF broke out at around 10 a.m. and lasted for eight hours.
It was only then that the senior officer called a colonel in the 1st Marine Brigade to ask for an update on the operation, and learned that the helicopters were not firing.
The same senior officer also learned later from the brigade’s After Battle Report (ABR) that the troops fired only six rounds of 105-mm howitzers because, one of them said, “it was the ceasefire committee who ordered them not to fire because they were engaging friendly forces (the MILF).”
Government troops and the MILF reached a ceasefire only at 5 p.m.
The seven-vehicle military convoy was passing through Albarka town on its way back to barracks in Lamitan City after a fruitless search for kidnapped Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi. Three of the vehicles carrying 50 soldiers were attacked by about 400 MILF rebels.
2 suspects surrender
Two MILF members included in the list of 130 persons to be served search warrants and being hunted for the ambush surrendered “voluntarily” on Tuesday between Sumisip and Albarka, Marayag said in Zamboanga City. He did not identify them.
“They also turned over an M203 rifle that belonged to one of the 14 slain Marines,” he said.
But Sattar Alih, the MILF representative to the Basilan ceasefire monitoring team, said the suspects did not belong to the MILF.
He said Nasiri Awwarin used to be a guerrilla but was dismissed for involvement in banditry. The other suspect, identified as Jul Sapii, was not a member of any rebel group but was the younger brother of one of the Albarka attackers, he said.
“We don’t know if they were actually involved in the actual attack last July 10 but the mere fact they had in their possession one of the soldiers’ firearms, then they could have been involved in the later incident,” Alih said, referring to the beheadings.
Alih said Sapii and Awwarin were actually “met by some military and local officials to stand as witnesses to the incident.”
Brig. Gen. Edgardo Gurrea, chair of the government’s ceasefire committee, earlier told reporters at the Garden Orchid Hotel that the testimony of “two vital civilian witnesses” could strengthen the findings of the joint government-MILF team.
Chief Supt. Joel Goltiao, chief of police in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, said that aside from Basilan, police in other parts of the Zamboanga peninsula had been alerted against the suspects.
“Even if they are outside our jurisdictions, we can serve the warrants,” Goltiao told radio dxMS.
In Basilan, about 200 local residents and non-government peace advocates rallied near the ambush site calling for efforts to avoid a resumption of hostilities.
The action against the MILF was delayed from last week following a warning by Japan and Canada that they would halt their aid programs in Mindanao if the fighting escalated. With reports from Julie S. Alipala, Edwin O. Fernandez and Jeoffrey Maitem, Inquirer Mindanao; Alcuin Papa and Christine Avendaño in Manila; and Agence France-Presse