U.S. role in Philippine raid questioned
In a hut on stilts with paper-thin walls of bamboo strips, an off-duty Philippine soldier was asleep alongside four members of his family when the crackle of assault rifle fire and shudder of grenade blasts awakened them early last month.
Within minutes, Cpl. Ibnun Wahid, 35, was dead, along with seven other villagers, including two children, age 4 and 9, two teenagers and two women, one of them pregnant. All were shot at close range, witnesses said in interviews and sworn affidavits gathered by the provincial governor’s staff to support expected criminal charges.
Like many on Sulu island, provincial Gov. Abdusakur Tan believes the dead were victims of coldblooded killings by government troops. The independent Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines has called for charges to be filed against troops and officers involved in gathering intelligence for and planning the operation, as well those directly responsible for the deaths.
Gen. Ruben Rafael, commander of Philippine troops on the island, also known as Jolo, said in an interview that a U.S. military spy plane circling high above this seaside village provided the intelligence that led to the Feb. 4 assault. He said the crew of the P-3 Orion turboprop, loaded with a sophisticated array of surveillance equipment, pinpointed the village as a stronghold and arms depot for the radical Islamist Abu Sayyaf movement. Government soldiers were ambushed in the area in August, Rafael said.
“The intelligence was very excellent because they have identified the houses, the men with the guns and all the armed men who were occupying these houses,” the general said. Rafael said the U.S. military also warned his troops during a firefight that dozens of militants were approaching to counterattack -- information he said was also gathered from the spy plane.
“Because of that, we had to fly our choppers and they were able to prevent these people from reinforcing” insurgents already in the village, the general said. “So that was very crucial support given to us by the U.S.”
Maj. Eric Walker, commander of U.S. forces on the island, declined an interview request, and the U.S. military spokesman for the region referred questions to the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
Without specifically confirming any flights over Ipil, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Karen Schinnerer said that “an aerial reconnaissance vehicle” gathered intelligence over Sulu “at the request of, and in coordination with,” Philippine forces.
No witnesses have said there were U.S. forces on the ground when the killings occurred, and Schinnerer said that none were. She also said that intelligence gathering does not violate a prohibition against U.S. forces engaging in combat here.
The human rights commission report recommending criminal and administrative proceedings against troops and officers involved in the operation was written before a Times reporter informed the panel of Rafael’s account of U.S. surveillance. The commission gets its mandate from the Philippine Constitution.
Asked whether the U.S. military would assist Philippine authorities in any prosecution arising from the assault, Schinnerer said, “It would be inappropriate to speculate on what remains a hypothetical situation.” But, she added, “as a general rule, the U.S. would provide such support to the [Philippine government] if asked.”
Under the Philippine Constitution, the hundreds of U.S. military advisors in the southern Philippines are not allowed to engage in combat while helping train local forces in the hunt for militants with Abu Sayyaf and the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiah. Both groups are allied with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.
The guerrilla force that Rafael said the Orion spotted would have been unusually large for Sulu. No insurgents were captured, wounded or killed approaching the village, according to the military’s accounts. A small arms cache, including a .45-caliber handgun, an M-16 assault rifle and some rifle grenades were seized in the raid, Rafael said.
Two soldiers were killed and five wounded in the Ipil operation, statistics the army cites as proof of a battle with militants. Villagers contend that the soldiers were killed in their own crossfire. Commission investigators found that was a possibility, but suggested Wahid may have opened fire on the troops as they swarmed around his house.
The Philippine military said an internal investigation had cleared its troops of any wrongdoing, which many here see as a whitewash.
While condemning the findings, attorney Jose Manuel Mamauag, regional director of the Commission on Human Rights, said he was glad the military had issued its conclusions, allowing the commission to take the next step.
“Definitely, we will file charges against the soldiers,” Mamauag said.
Sulu Gov. Tan, taking a rare stand against the powerful military, has directed provincial officials and police to build a separate criminal case against as yet unidentified soldiers and commanders involved in the Ipil assault.
Counterinsurgency missions on Sulu have been held up as a model in the battle against militants because a combination of aid programs and military force has brought relative peace to the island. But insurgents are staging a comeback, and clashes have escalated over the last year.
With kidnappings and decapitations fairly common, tourists rarely risk coming anymore. Yet anger and suspicion toward Philippine forces and U.S. advisors also run deep here, even though, Rafael said, U.S. aid for projects including new schools, roads and drainage is expected to total more than $12 million over the next 18 months.
Ipil is a small village on Sulu’s southern shore, accessible only by water. Most of its people earn a meager living farming seaweed that yields agar, used as a laxative as well as a gelatin substitute and thickener for soups, desserts and pharmaceuticals.
The Philippine military says a dense network of seaside mangroves here are prime Abu Sayyaf turf and that the assault, which included U.S.-trained Special Forces, was an effort to rout them. Since the troops didn’t identify themselves, Wahid, a former rebel who joined the army as part of a 1996 peace pact, feared they were bandits or insurgents, relatives said.
He drew his licensed .45-caliber handgun from its holster and went out on the rickety bamboo porch, ready to defend his family, which insists he did not fire it. When he saw fellow soldiers, he put the gun down, raised his hands and shouted, “Papa Alpha, Papa Alpha,” signaling he was in the Philippine army, said his wife, Rawina Lahim Wahid, 24.
Within minutes, Wahid, his wife and parents, and 9-year-old nephew, Nurjimer Lahim, were ordered to lie face-down on the white sand, according to his widow and parents, Udam Lahim, 70, and Andiyang Lahing, 65.
Soldiers tied Wahid’s hands behind his back. Then one leveled an assault rifle at his head, and pulled the trigger, his widow said. The weapon jammed. The soldier recocked the M-16 and fired a bullet into Wahid’s head, said family members, who were later released.
On the other side of the small, southern Philippine village, 17 members of three families were fleeing the gunfire in a long canoe. They headed straight toward a blocking unit of Philippine soldiers on the edge of a thick mangrove swamp.
From a few yards away, the soldiers opened fire, and kept shooting, ignoring the screaming villagers’ pleas, witnesses said.
“It was not an accident,” said Saida Failan, 21, whose 4-year-old daughter, Marisa, was shot dead. “We were shouting, ‘Stop firing, we are civilians!’ and children were crying.”
When the shooting stopped, six people in the boat were dead. Villagers also found the body of a local councilor, Eldisim Lahim, shot dead outside his home.
Soon after sunrise, Philippine troops prepared to move the bodies by boat, but Rawina Wahid refused to let them take her husband’s corpse without her. “I was afraid they were going to throw him in the ocean, so there would be no evidence,” she said.
She said she joined them and was taken to a naval vessel offshore, which she was unable to identify. Rafael said it was a Philippine military “support ship.”
As she stepped onto the boat, she said, she saw four foreign men in American camouflage fatigues, each armed with an assault rifle, standing next to a second deck railing.
“They were smiling,” she said. “They were happy.”
She said she had no way of knowing what the men, who she assumed were Americans, were doing on the ship, or whether they were aware of the horrors she and her neighbors had suffered.
“That’s not important, as long as justice is done,” she said.