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On Its 6th Anniversary, We Recall the Tragic Mamasapano Clash

Justice is still the call of the families of SAF 44.

On January 25, 2015, members of the Special Action Force (SAF) were killed in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, during an encounter with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

The operation, codenamed Oplan Exodus, was intended to capture Malaysian terrorist and bomb-maker Zulkifli bin Hir (Marwan), other Malaysian terrorists, and other members of the BIFF. However, because of miscommunications between the MILF and the government forces, a firefight had erupted. (Read: Caritas PH on Anti-Terror Bill: ‘Activism is not Terrorism’)

In the end, 44 SAF members and 18 members of the MILF and BIFF were killed during the operation. Their deaths have since become a controversial issue especially because then-President Noynoy Aquino and then-Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Alan Purisima knew of the operations, but failed to inform then-Secretary of Interior and Local Government Mar Roxas and Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina. (Read: Jolo Twin Blasts, 2019 Cathedral Bombing Believed to Have the Same Mastermind)

Their failure to inform these two individuals resulted in miscommunication and non-coordination with the MILF, which was vital in preventing any firefight between the Mindanao-based group and the government forces in areas with MILF presence. And now, six years after the incident, the families of the slain SAF members are still seeking justice.

2015 Mamasapano Clash

Members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) carry metal caskets of SAF officers killed in clashes with Moro rebels on Jan. 25, 2015, upon arriving at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay City. (Photo from Romeo Ranoco / Reuters / ABS-CBN News)

But what really happened in Mamasapano on that day in 2015? My Pope gives you a rundown of the important things that transpired on January 25 itself. We’re providing a trigger warning for those who cannot stomach violence and gunfight, as it is mentioned in the succeeding paragraphs.

Operation Begins

  • 2:30 AM: SAF forces enter Mamasapano for the operation
  • 3:00 AM: AFP’s 45th Infantry Battalion takes notice of the SAF forces entering Barangay Tukanalipao
  • 4:15 AM: The Seaborne Unit of SAF enters what they know to be Marwan’s hideout in Barangay Pidsandawan; Marwan fires a gun but gets shot and killed
  • 4:30 AM: The 55th SAF blocking forces spots a group of armed men— they wait for sunrise before engaging in a gunfight
  • 5:00 AM: Napeñas informs Government of the Philippines – Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (GPH-AHJAG) Chair Brigadier General Manolito Orense that the forces are ready to launch operations; he asks Orense to contact MILF-AHJAG chairman lawyer Abdul Dataya to inform him about the operations
  • 5:42 AM: Napeñas calls Orense to tell him they are withdrawing from the area (Read: 5 Prayers for Enemies to Make Peace)
  • 5:47 AM: Orense calls 601st Brigade Commander Colonel Melquiades Feliciano to ask him to coordinate with local MILF commanders in the area to cease gunfire and assist SAF troops

Firefight Ensues

  • 6:00 AM: AFP soldiers hear firefight but do not know what the cause is
  • 6:30 AM: Major General Edmundo Pangilinan receives reports about the firefight and calls Feliciano to instruct him to “call the shots and prepare the troops”; Espina then asks Westmincom chief General Guerrero for assistance
  • 6:38 AM: The government’s ceasefire committee learns about the firefight and verifies it with the different troops; they are informed that no military troops were involved— instead it was PNP-SAF members
  • 6:42 AM: MILF-AHJAG asks for a ceasefire immediately to avoid any issues
  • 7:00 AM: Inspector Ryan Pabalinas of the 55th SAF asks Napeñas and deputy SAF commander Chief Superintendent Noel Taliño for help; this would be the last time they hear from him
  • 7:30 AM: Crisis team is organized and the ceasefire team heads to Cotabato
  • 8:00 AM – 10:00 AM: Intense firefight ensues based on reports from the ground; both government and MILF ceasefire committees now head to Mamasapano to pacify the situation
  • 9:00 AM: One of Roxas’s aides receives a call from the mayor of a nearby town informing them of the situation; he relays the information to Roxas who then asks for verification from Espina
  • 9:25 AM: The 45th Infantry Battalion teams up with SAF troops and gathers on the highway
  • 10:30 AM: President Aquino arrives in Zamboanga City (Read: WATCH: iWant film ‘Ranger G’ narrates Matteo Guidicelli’s military journey)
  • 10:34 AM: Orders for a ceasefire were issued
  • 12:00 PM: Crisis team meets with MILF commanders to talk about the encounter; the firefight continues with 11 SAF members already killed
  • 12:10 PM: Ceasefire agreed to create “a reasonable gap” in order to remove all casualties from the battleground

Ceasefire Ordered

  • 1:00 PM: All troops now radioing the order for the ceasefire
  • 1:15 PM: Troops ask the assistance of Mamasapano Mayor Benzhir Ampatuan and the Tukanalipao barangay chairman to pacify the situation
  • 3:30 PM: Crisis team attempts to enter the area but withdraws due to movement of armed men; members of the community report seeing 32 casualties (Read: UP Officials, VP Robredo Denounce Termination of UP-DND Accord)
  • 5:20 PM: Crisis team returns with ambulances to hopefully start retrieval operations; during retrieval, they hear gunshots less than two kilometers away from the encounter site; reports state some SAF members are still being shot at by armed men— MILF provides assurance that it wasn’t their men, making it the BIFF that was firing against the SAF
  • 6:00 PM: Officials report that at least 27 SAF members had been killed
  • 6:30 PM: AFP fires white phosphorus near the area where 84th SAF company survivors are located
  • 9:15 PM: Espina issues statement relaying that SAF troops were killed in the clash

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