MANILA, Philippines - The military on Sunday said they are conducting an investigation on the circumstances leading to Saturday’s deadly clash with New People’s Army (NPA) rebels in Oriental Mindoro.
The clash left 11 soldiers, including a second lieutenant, dead and 7 others injured, the military’s recent largest casualty count in a single encounter in recent years.
Lt. Gen. Roland Detabali, Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Southern Luzon Command commanding general, in a phone interview said the investigation is being spearheaded by the Solcom in coordination with the Philippine Army.
“We will be conducting investigation if there was possible tactical blunder in the operation. It (operation) might have not been also well-supervised,” Detabali said of the encounter that occurred 5:20 a.m. Saturday at the village of Panaytayan in Mansalay town.
A platoon from the Army’s 23rd Division Reconnaissance Company were on patrol when they ran into a fortified NPA camp, said military spokesman Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner on Satruday. The government troops were in a disadvantageous position "compared to the well-placed terrorist encampment."
The troops also lost 10 M16 rifles, two M203 grenade launchers, an M60 machinegun and three handheld radios to the NPA rebels. Among those dead was 2Lt. Ronie Sipsip, the platoon leader.
The rebels fled when government reinforcement arrived. The military said they believe that the NPA rebels also suffered casualties in the fighting although they have not recovered any body.
Detabali indicated that among those to be probed was the time that the soldiers conducted their operation. He said that soldiers should be moving to a specific objective during nighttime.
“We are used to moving at night time,” said Detabali, adding that soldiers will move on daytime “if you have an order” or if there is a proper “cover” for the movement. “If you can be seen, why will you move?,” he asked.
“We have having it investigated. In fact, Gen. Bangit sent an investigating already,” he said referring to Army chief Lt. Gen. Delfin Bangit. Also, Detabali said he has sent his inspector general to Masbate for the investigation.
The bodies of the slain soldiers arrived onboard 2 UH-1H helicopters on Sunday afternoon at Army headquarters in Ft Bonifacio in Taguig City.
The remains of the slain soldiers were taken to a mortuary and would later be brought to the Philippine Army gym.
Lt. Col. Arnulfo Burgos, Army spokesman, said the relatives of the slain soldiers would be receiving benefits.
Investigation 'standard procedure'
Detabali said it was normal for them to have the incident probed because they suffered a heavy casualty. “That’s an SOP (standard operating procedure) of the Army if you lost more than six people and six firearms…We lost more than five people, so we have to investigate,” he said.
Detabali said that under such circumstances, the company commander – one 1Lt Toriado - and battalion commander – Lt. Col. Randy Sinocruz of the 4th Infantry Battalion - may be investigated.
“Normally we will look two steps up. Since that is a platoon, we will really investigate his company commander and his battalion commander who ordered them (the engaged troops) to operate,” said Detabali.
“We will ask them why the operation was conducted that way. We will also determine if there was violation (in the conduct of the operation) or it was plainly that the enemy was on the advantage,” he said.
Meanwhile, Detabali said about a thousand government troops are pursuing the NPA rebels. The pursuing troops included the 21st Division Reconnaissance Company that arrived Oriental Mindoro on Saturday night from Quezon.
He said the other troops involved in the pursuit operation are the 4th and the 80th Infantry Battalions. “Basically, we are talking of about 1,000 people…It now has become a brigade operations,” he said when asked how many soldiers are involved in the pursuit.
Detabali said there use to be three battalions in the province – the 4th, 80th and 68th IBs. In 2008, he said the 68th IB was pulled out of the province and deployed to Central Mindanao due to the conflict with rogue secessionist rebels.
He said he will make a request to higher headquarters to return the 68th IB to the province, which remains heavily-infested by communist rebels.
23 more provinces 'insurgency-free'
Meanwhile, the Armed Forces on Sunday also said at least 23 more provinces are set to be declared insurgency free before President Arroyo steps down on June 30.
Brawner said 8 provinces have been cleared of insurgency since 2008 to date. Internal security operations in these areas have been turned over to the provincial governments and to the local police.
The 8 provinces included Guimaras, Siquijor, and Biliran which were cleared as early as 2008. Cleared last year of insurgency were Marinduque, Romblon and La Union. Cleared since January this year were Bohol and Aurora.
To be declared insurgency free during the remainder of the first quarter this year, Brawner said, are Tarlac, Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Ilocos Norte, Apayao, Ifugao, Quirino, Pangasinan, Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, Cebu, Southern Leyte and Northern Leyte.
“Soon to be declared insurgency free during the second quarter of 2010 are the following provinces: Ilocos Sur, Benguet, Cagayan, Isabela, Bulacan, Bataan, Zambales, Misamis Oriental and Sarangani,” said Brawner.
President Arroyo has directed the military in 2006 to end the insurgency problem on or before her term ends on June this year. Military estimates placed the current NPA strength to just more than 4,000 from a high of more than 20,000 in the 80s.
The military has said that an area is declared insurgency free if the NPA no longer have presence in that locality or if their strength is already insignificant to the point that they could no longer affect the lives of the people.
Brawner said the military will remain in these areas even if the anti-insurgency operations are now handled by the local government officials and the police. He noted that the military will play the support role in fighting the rebels.
“Let me emphasize also that it doesn’t mean that when a province is handed over to the local government executives, the presence of the military will not be felt anymore in that area. We will still be in the area to assist the Philippine National Police,” he said. With a report from Israel Malasa, ABS-CBN News