MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – A military spokesperson representing the soldiers involved in the January 6 Atimonan encounter affirmed Wednesday the legitimacy of the operation where 13 men were killed.
Col. Generoso Bolina, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Southern Luzon Command spokesperson, said Col. Monico Abang, 1st Special Forces Battalion commander, told an initial military inquiry that the men on board the two vehicles were the first to fire shots at the checkpoint policemen.
The two vehicles carried 13 men including Vic Siman, an alleged "jueteng" operator reportedly engaged in a turf rivalry with one of the police leaders at the checkpoint, Supt. Hansel Marantan.
"Opo, nagsagawa po agad ng initial inquiry ang aming commander at ang kanilang basehan ay ito po ang report na nga ni Col. Abang," Bolina said.
"Ang sinasabi po sa kanyang salaysay, ito pong grupo na ito ay Vic Siman gun-for-hire group... Ang una raw pong nagpaputok ay nandoon sa mga sasakyan, at doon na nag-umpisa ang palitan ng putok."
The alleged involvement of Marantan and Siman in jueteng operations has triggered speculations that the supposed gun battle in Barangay Lumutan was not a simple shootout between criminal elements and government forces.
The death of Siman's alleged aide, Fernando "Pandoy" Morales, in a police operation last Monday has further complicated the issue.
The alleged shootout is now the subject of a probe by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).
Joint police-military ops not unusual
Bolino also dismissed suggestions that the military was not informed about the real nature of the police operation.
He also admitted that it only took the police a phone call to have Abang deploy 24 soldiers to augment the police forces in Atimonan on the same day.
The 25 military men included Abang and two high-ranking officials. The rest were Army reservists and soldiers.
"Judgment call ito ni Col. Monico Abang. [Hindi na ito karaniwan] dahil sa dami na ng joint operations sa area - sa southern Luzon," he said
"Parati po namin itong isinasagawa at marami kaming accomplishments. Ito nga po ay verbal [notice] na lang ang nangyari dito"
He explained that the troops were deployed immediately since they were already stationed near the checkpoint area.
Solcom chief Maj. Gen. Alan Luga has ordered that the involved soldiers be placed under restrictive custody. Bolino clarified, however, that they are not being relieved.
Meanwhile, Crisanto Buela, legal counsel of members of the 1st Special Forces Batallion who were involved in the Atimonan Quezon shooting incident, also affirmed that there was no rubout.
Buela said the incident was a legitimate encounter after Marantan asked for the military’s help to man a police checkpoint in Atimonan.
“If it was really a rubout, would you think Colonel Marantan will ask the assistance of the military? And also the local provincial police force. If there is really a rubout, will he ask for help from units that he is not close to?” he said.
Buela said the soldiers did not say how far they were from the vehicles of Siman’s group when the shooting started. He also said based on his clients’ affidavits, that the soldiers heard gunshots but did not see who shot first.
Asked about reports that there was no tattooing inside the victims’ vehicles, indicating that they did not fire their guns, he said: “I cannot explain that. I do not know why there is no tattooing, I cannot explain that. Maybe the SOCO…”
He also said there was no mention of a missing red bag in the Siman convoy’s vehicles. Earlier reports said the bag might have contained valuables including gold or jewels.
The lawyer said elements of the Special Forces will not allow themselves to be used in a rubout. “They will not risk their careers,” he said.
He also noted that if there was a rubout, Marantan would not have been left himself open to be shot by Siman’s group.
On the allegation that Marantan’s wounds were self-inflicted, he said: “Why would he inflict himself, shoot himself 3 times just to prove there is no rubout?”