President Benigno Aquino III was given inaccurate information on the assistance that beleaguered Special Action Force (SAF) troopers were supposedly receiving from the military on the Jan. 25 police mission against two terrorists that went awry and cost the lives of 44 commandos.
This was revealed in an exchange of messages on that fateful day between Mr. Aquino and Alan Purisima that the former director general of the Philippine National Police read on Monday at the resumption of the Senate inquiry into the tragic raid in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province, that has sparked nationwide outrage.
Purisima, who was suspended in December last year on corruption charges and who later resigned as PNP chief as details of the SAF debacle unfolded in public, updated the President on Jan. 25 about the predawn killing by the commandos of Malaysian bomb expert Zulkifli bin Hir, alias "Marwan," and their subsequent deadly clash with Moro rebels.
In another text, Purisima told the President early on that the containment forces who were battling it out with forces of the Moro Islamic Liberaton Front (MILF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were "supported by mechanized and artillery support."
But this was apparently not the case, because the tanks and artillery fire were not yet deployed at that time, and these were not utilized fully because of the marshy ground and the lack of a forward observer, the senators noted.
"That information given to the President was not entirely accurate. In fact, it is false," Sen. Francis Escudero said.
Escudero also said Purisima's text messages to the President did not indicate that the situation was worsening.
In the end, 44 SAF commandos, 18 MILF fighters and five civilians were killed in the project, called "Oplan Exodus."
Text to Aquino
Purisima said he texted Mr. Aquino at 5:45 a.m. on Jan. 25 that Marwan had been killed but that his body had to be left behind, and that one SAF trooper was wounded in the operation.
Based on his text message to Purisima, Mr. Aquino knew details of the operation and believed that PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philippines units were supposed to be available to assist 160 SAF commandos out to get Marwan and his Filipino deputy, Basit Usman.
"If I remember correctly, 160 SAF troopers were directly involved in this operation plus provisions for other PNP and AFP units to assist," read Mr. Aquino's 7:59 a.m. text to Purisima.
"The terrain is flat and clear as opposed to upland forested or jungle terrain.
Why could they not contain and/or overwhelm the 15-20 members opposing force? Are they still in contact with the two other targets? If not and the opposing force has escaped, are we now back to square one?" the President's text read.
Purisima, at 8:17 a.m., replied: "They are presently in contact with reinforcing elements from BIFF.
The containment forces are the ones in contact right now.
They are supported by mechanized and artillery support. Sir."
But Escudero noted that as per the testimony of military officials, the tanks or mechanized brigade that were supposed to assist the SAF troopers were only able to reach the edge of the highway and were unable to get out into the marshland where fighting was raging.
The mechanized brigade took off at 8:20 a.m., which was after Purisima had sent the text to the President about mechanized and artillery support, Escudero noted.
Purisima testified that he based his message to the President about mechanized and artillery support on an SMS to him by Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, chief of the AFP Western Command.
After receiving the call to assist the SAF troopers under fire, Guerrero told Purisima that there was coordination on the ground, and that "tank, infantry and artillery support are made available."
But Guerrero said that his text message was only intended to attest that the tanks and artillery were in place, but did not mean these had been deployed.
"I'm not saying the artillery and tanks were already firing.
That is the call of the ground commander.
What I'm saying is these are available in the area, because it's only now that you told us you need assistance," he said.
No tanks, artillery
Escudero noted that there was a big difference between saying there was support from the mechanized brigade and that support would be made available.
Purisima replied that it was his understanding that the mechanized and artillery elements would be supporting the troops on the ground.
"That understanding, General Purisima, proved very costly to the SAF members in the field because that was the understanding of most of the officials as well, but in reality, that was not the case where they were coming from," Escudero said.
Escudero asked Purisima whether he informed the President that the mechanized brigade and artillery were unable to provide support to the SAF troopers.
Purisima said that Mr. Aquino was in Zamboanga City that day and he should have been briefed there by the military.
In his last text to the President on Jan. 25 sent at 6:20 p.m. Purisima said: "Sir latest report from operating elements in Maguindanao states that the security elements who were engaged by BIFF/MILF elements suffered heavy casualties.
They were reportedly overrun. CCH and international monitoring team are in the area retrieving casualties. The main effort is still in the process of rendezvous with other SAF and AFP elements."
Guerrero, who briefed the President in Zamboanga City at 11 a.m. the same day, said the discussion did not tackle this.