MANILA, Philippines - Lawyer Ely Pamatong, who admitted ordering the retaking of the Spratlys from China but not the bombing of Manila's international airport, was arrested as he arrived in the capital on Wednesday.
Pamatong was arrested not for the failed attempt of his group USA Freedom Fighters of the East (Usaffe) to throw incendiary devices at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) Terminal 3 on Monday but for a nearly year-old case of inciting to sedition, according NBI Director Virgilio Mendez.
Chief Supt. Christopher Laxa, head of the Aviation Security Group of the Philippine National Police, said National Bureau of Investigation agents arrested Pamatong as he arrived at Naia Terminal 2 on a Philippine Airlines flight from Cagayan de Oro City at 5:30 p.m.
Mendez said Pamatong was arrested on a warrant issued by Judge Joel Socrates Lopena of the Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 33 on
Oct. 24 last year.
"He has a standing warrant of arrest. We just acted on it," Mendez said.
Asked how the NBI was able to lure Pamatong to Manila, Mendez replied, "That's part of our investigative technique."
He said Pamatong was arrested by the same NBI agents who arrested the three men who linked him to their attempt to bomb Naia 3 on Monday.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima also called on the media not to refer to the incident as a foiled bombing or not to say that an actual bomb was involved.
"It is not really accurate to say that. I myself thought it was an improvised explosive device, but it's only just an improvised incendiary device. If they succeed in blowing it up-it had gasoline in it-it could trigger fire and [cause] injury. Let us not play it up in so much in such a manner that our countrymen might think it's a bombing attempt [when] it's not."
Asked what was the correct way of referring to the incident, she replied, "[An] attempt to cause some chaos. I wouldn't say destabilization because we have not yet verified the ultimate agenda."
In an interview with the Inquirer before he left for Manila, Pamatong said he had given orders for the retaking of the Spratlys from the Chinese, not to fire-bomb Naia 3.
But instead of going to Puerto Princesa City in Palawan province to hire a boat and invade a Chinese-occupied reef in the West Philippine Sea, the three security guards who were to carry out the mission drove to Naia 3 in Parañaque City on Sunday night carrying large firecrackers and gasoline to blow a toilet there sky high.
Military reservists but apparently without special operations training, they acted suspiciously when they reached the terminal's car park and were promptly arrested by NBI agents, who learned about their mission and laid in wait for them there.
Security and justice officials thought it was a case of loose screws, not national security.
Even so, the NBI on Tuesday brought charges against the three failed commandos-Grandeur Pepito Guerrero, Emmanuel San Pedro and Sonny Yohanon-for illegal possession of explosives, a nonbailable offense.
The three men belonged to Usaffe, founded by Pamatong, a lawyer of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) who ran for President in 2004 but was eliminated from the race by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) as a nuisance candidate.
Cesar Garcia, director general of the National Security Council (NSC), told the Senate finance committee on Wednesday that the intelligence community had classified Usaffe as "dubious."
Answering a question from Sen. Francis Escudero, the committee chair, Garcia said Usaffe was "not a threat to national security."
But Garcia told reporters later that Usaffe was a threat to public safety, noting the NBI report that the group had planned to bomb Naia 3, SM Mall of Asia and the main office of real estate developer D.M. Consunji Inc. in Makati City.
He said he had an idea who was behind Usaffe, but declined to disclose the person's identity, preferring to leave the matter to the NBI.
Garcia said the intelligence community closely followed dubious organizations until the advent of the Freedom Constitution in 1986, bringing about tolerance for freedom of association.
"That's why sometimes, these kinds of organizations led by delusions and delusional individuals are able to escape notice and they started getting involved in this activity," he said at the Senate hearing on the NSC's P95.389-million budget for next year.
"So they come once in a while to our attention. But at the time they looked basically harmless," Garcia said.
In the interview with the Inquirer, Pamatong said he founded Usaffe 13 years ago to help the government fight the communist New People's Army (NPA) in Mindanao.
"I organized Usaffe as an anticommunist paramilitary organization and it was accredited by the [Armed Forces of the Philippines] in 2003," Pamatong said.
He said the military offered to fund his group, "but we refused because we did not want anyone to be telling us what to do."
Pamatong said Usaffe had a "large force, but all are unarmed."
"But I can arm all of them if I want," he said.
Pamatong said Guerrero, whom he called "Jojo," was his chief of staff in Usaffe.
"I told Jojo to take over the Spratlys and drive away China from our [territory]," Pamatong said.
"The government has done nothing to defend the Spratlys," he added. "I assume responsibility for some of [Guerrero's] actions."
Pamatong said bombing Naia 3 was "never part of the plan."
Even then, he defended Guerrero, who, according to him, had "trained in security" in the United States.
He described Guerrero as a "disciplined man," as he was a member of the Iglesia ni Cristo.
Guerrero, he said, finished high school in Los Angeles and lived in the United States for some time.
'Comic characters' but…
Earlier, De Lima said the NBI would "invite" Pamatong for questioning on his group's Naia caper.
De Lima described Pamatong and his followers as "comic characters," but said any threat to sow chaos in the Philippines should not be belittled.
She said she had heard that the NBI was being laughed at for moving on Usaffe, but the NBI operation was no laughing matter.
"Whatever this is, we cannot ignore it," De Lima said. "We should not be complacent, because what if they succeeded and caused harm or death?"
Guerrero, San Pedro and Yohanon submitted counteraffidavits to the NBI on Wednesday through their lawyer, Oliver Lozano.
In the counteraffidavit, Guerrero, who styled himself as a general in the Usaffe, reiterated that the vehicle he and his companions used was borrowed by one Norberto Paranga, who asked to get it at the Naia 3 car park.
He said he sent San Pedro and Yohanon to watch the vehicle.
Guerrero and his companions denied that they carried explosives in the vehicle.
"There is no forensic examination and findings that the items [found in the vehicle] are explosives and that the firecrackers would explode," they said.
"There is no certification that the possessor is not authorized to possess the firecrackers. In any case, we were not in possession of the firecrackers," they said.