MANILA, Philippines - Why was an elite police unit better than the Manila Police District's (MPD) Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) group not used to free hostages being held by dismissed senior inspector Rolando Mendoza?
Director Leocadio Santiago Jr., National Capital Region Police Office chief, struggled to answer the question raised by Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. at the Senate inquiry Thursday into the tragic hostage-taking crisis in Manila.
Marcos had in mind the elite unit of the Philippine National Police (PNP), the Special Action Force (SAF), which Santiago himself previously led.
Members of the SAF, which is patterned after the British Special Air Service (SAS), are trained by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) and Critical Incident Response Group, as well as the French RAID and Israeli YAMAM police special forces units.
Some SAF officers are assigned to SWAT teams but most remain with their core unit.
They specialize in commando-type unconventional and urban warfare operations, according to the PNP.
SAF units are also better armed and equipped to handle crises. Their close-combat arsenal includes Heckler & Koch MP5 and FN P90 submachine guns.
Other SAF weapons include various types of assault guns, semi-automatic shotguns, and sniper rifles.
Santiago told Marcos that during the hostage-taking incident, SAF troops were placed under the control of MPD head Chief Superintendent Rodolfo Magtibay, who was the ground commander of police forces at the time.
They were never deployed.
“So it’s up to the ground commander? (I) have to question your judgment,” Marcos told Santiago. “You have the best unit waiting and not doing anything.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Jose "Jinggoy" Estrada echoed Marcos' statement while grilling Magtibay.
"Walang ginawa ang SAF kahit nandoon sila? Hind ninyo ni-utilize ang kanilang kakayahan?" Estrada asked.
"Yes," Magtibay said.
The SAF’s known operations in the past include the March 15, 2005 hostage crisis at the Metro Manila Rehabilitation Center of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology in Camp Bagong Diwa, Taguig City that was captured by Abu Sayyaf inmates.
The elite police squad, backed up by SWAT units, killed Alhamser Limbong alias Commander Kosovo; Ghalib Andang alias Commander Robot; Nadzmi Sabdullah alias Commander Global; and Sadit Abdul Ganit Husim alias Commander Lando.
A successful end to the 30-hour crisis resulted in various foreign groups abroad praising the SAF. Police Officer 1 Abel Arreola was the only SAF operative killed during the assault.
Research also shows that the SAF was also deployed against rebel government soldiers from 1986 to 1989; during the Oakwood mutiny in July 27, 2003; and to help secure US President George W Bush during his visit to the Philippines in 2003.
AFP special unit
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), meanwhile, revealed that a company of highly trained and well-equipped soldiers was also sent to the Quirino grandstand to deal with the hostage crisis.
Magtibay also decided against calling into action the US-trained Light Reaction Company (LRC) which is under the military's Joint Special Operations Group.
“At the start of the hostage situation, we immediately contacted our (police) counterparts and we offered services coming from our special and elite unit,” AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Jose Mabanta said.
He said the offer and coordination was made “at the highest level.”
“However, we were told that we just have to be on standby. So apparently, as we all know, it was never used,” Mabanta added.
“The Light Reaction Company (is) a very viable alternative. Its specialty is (addressing) hostage-taking and release of hostages,” he said.
US Special Forces troops began training several LRCs in the late 1990s to fight extremist groups such as the Abu Sayyaf.
Mabanta said the military did not insist on deploying the LRC to help rescue Mendoza’s hostages.
“We just presented that there is a viable alternative and it was really up to the forces on the ground whether to utilize it or not,” he added, stressing that the AFP cannot interfere in decisions made by PNP officials.