Philippine authorities late Monday said they were investigating the killing of four army intelligence personnel by police officers in an apparent friendly fire incident in southern Sulu province, a hotbed of activity involving Abu Sayyaf militants linked with Islamic State.
In a statement released late Monday night, the military’s regional command confirmed that “policemen shot soldiers boarding a private vehicle” in front of a fire station in Jolo, the provincial capital, at 2:26 p.m. Monday.
The members of the intelligence unit were in the area to search for Abu Sayyaf suicide bombers under the command of an operative allegedly linked to four suspected militants who were killed during a raid by government security forces in Metro Manila on Friday, according to officials.
“We are yet to establish the motive of the police,” Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, the commander of the Western Mindanao Command, said in a statement posted on its Facebook page.
“We also requested the NBI to investigate to ensure impartiality. We don’t want any escalation of hostilities out of the incident. Our interest is to know the facts and give justice,” he said, referring to the National Bureau of Investigation.
According to a police incident report seen by BenarNews, police flagged down a vehicle carrying the soldiers who had introduced themselves properly. The police then directed the soldiers to a nearby municipal police station to verify their identities, but the vehicle sped away, the report said.
When police officers gave chase “the said persons disembarked from their vehicle with their firearms,” the report said.
“Subsequently, the said persons lifted and pointed their firearms toward the PNP (police) personnel (but) before they could pull the trigger, the PNP personnel were able to shoot them in defense,” it said.
The Sulu Police Provincial Office, in a report to the Police Regional Office of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), identified the fatalities as officers and personnel of the “army intelligence unit.”
Jolo police identified the dead soldiers as Maj. Marvin Indamog, commanding officer of the 9th Intelligence Service Unit (ISU); Capt. Irwin Managuelod; Sgt. Eric Velasco and Cpl. Abdal Asula.
A military officer with information about Monday’s shootings in Jolo said police tailed the soldiers’ van after they had identified themselves, the Associated Press reported. The soldiers then stopped their vehicle and one of them got out with his hands up, but the police opened fire on the soldiers, the source told AP.
The army team was conducting an intelligence operation to locate suspected bombers linked to an Abu Sayyaf unit led by Mundi Sawadjaan, an operative identified last week by police intelligence sources as a key planner of twin suicide bombings that killed 23 people at a church in Jolo in January 2019.
The four Abu Sayyaf suspects killed in Friday’s raid in Parañaque City, outside Manila, were believed to be planning terrorist activities and were “financial conduits” for the Philippine affiliate of Islamic State (IS), sources in military and police intelligence said.
The four suspects also had an “established connection” with Mundi Sawadjaan, officials said after last week’s raid. According to local media, Mundi is the nephew of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the top leader of the Philippine branch of IS.