Mistaken for rebels? Photos show cops in uniform, weather fair before PNP-AFP 'misencounter'

Maan Macapagal, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 29 2018 06:20 PM | Updated as of Jun 30 2018 01:32 AM

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Survivor says cops taunted by shooters

MANILA - The weather was fair and the police officers were all in uniform. How could soldiers have mistaken them for rebels? 

Such question arose as an initial report of a police panel investigating the "misencounter" between the military and police in Samar on Monday found evidence contradicting the narration of soldiers that Philippine National Police (PNP) personnel they saw from a distance were muddy and appeared to be members of the New People's Army (NPA). 

Moments before the alleged misencounter that left 6 policemen dead and 9 others wounded, the officers were able to document their movement while patrolling the area.

Photos showed PNP officers reviewing a map, scouting the area and even taking a short break. All of them were in field service uniforms and appeared clean, contrary to claims made by military personnel that they were unrecognizable as they were covered in mud. 

Contributed photo

Contributed photo

Contributed photo

Contributed photo

Contributed photo

Contributed photo

Members of the 805th company of the PNP Regional Mobile Force Battalion 8 said the photos were taken around 9:00 am in Sitio Lunoy, Brgy. San Roque in Sta. Rita town, Samar last June 25. 

Some officers in the photos were among those killed or wounded during a 20-minute firefight with the 16-man Charlie Company of the 87th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army on Monday. 

The PNP Regional Office 8 Special Investigation Task Group (SITG) said they recovered the photos in one police officer's mobile phone.

In an affidavit of one of the police officers who survived the encounter, he said the photos were taken when the group stopped to check the map to determine their location. 

He said everything was visible and clear as they checked the map in broad daylight. 

“In fact, I was checking the map just with broad daylight. It was a fair weather condition,” he said. 

The officer said the group was about to move out when they were fired upon. 

“Being surprised with the heavy volume of fire, we scampered to different directions for cover,” he said. 

“I instructed my team to return fire as a defensive stance and engaged in a firefight that lasted for about ten (10) to fifteen (15) minutes. While we were engaged [in a] firefight with the perpetrators, some of my personnel were able to maneuver to the elevated portion going to the feeder road,” he added. 

The police officer said the armed men who fired at them also taunted them with remarks such as, “Ano? Mayayabang kayo. Magsilaban kayo (What now? You're all so arrogant. You better fight.)

The officer said he contacted the tactical command post to inform them that they “were engaged at GC 51PYN1312870507 and have casualties on their side, both KIPO (killed in police operations) and WIPO (wounded in police operation).” This was around 9:20 am. 

After initial investigation, the SITG was able to determine the exact location of the “misencounter” based on "traces and recovered empty shells of undetermined calibre firearms.” 

It said it appeared that the soldiers were positioned at a vantage point “as they were horizontally aligned towards the highest ground of the area at an elevation of approximately five meters and with a distance of 12.5 meters to 30 meters from the position of the PNP troops who were at the lowest ground and at the center of slopes,” the SITG initial report said.

Lt. Col. Arnel Floresca, commanding officer of the 87th Infantry Battalion, declined to comment on the photos, saying he has not seen them and does not have authority to release any statement.

He also said his unit is awaiting instructions from superiors before submitting the firearms.

"May legal na pinag-uusapan tungkol doon pero hindi ko maibigay ang details...Nag-markings na sila, nakita na nila ang mga baril doon (There are ongoing legal discussions about it but I cannot give details. They have made markings, they saw firearms there)," he said.

In a statement, the military said soldiers fired at the police officers because they mistook them as New People's Army (NPA) rebels. 

“According to the team leader of the operating AFP troops, they mistook the PNP troops sighted as NPAs because they were wearing 'tapita' and were muddy," the military said. 

The team leader admitted that it was hard to identify the armed men they came upon as friendly forces because they were about 50 to 75 meters away. 

But they still fired after receiving confirmation that they were rebels, the SITG report read. 

The police, meanwhile, said they could not have been mistaken as rebels because they were in complete field uniform and not covered in mud. 

Even morgue photos obtained by ABS-CBN News showed no trace of mud on the uniform of the slain officers.

"They were likewise in an open field visible to the position where the AFP troops were located and could easily be identified as PNP troopers,” the report said. 

The SITG earlier requested soldiers involved in the incident to submit the firearms used during the “misencounter” for gun powder residue (GPR) and ballistic examination.

It said no firearms have been submitted to date, "hampering the supposed expeditious ballistic examination procedure.” 

Department of the Interior and Local Government officer-in-charge Eduardo Año, a former AFP chief of staff whose office now oversees the PNP, said the department is investigating if either camp failed to follow protocol. 

"We will make sure mananagot kung sino ang mga accountable (those accountable will be made to answer)," he said.