Four soldiers were “murdered” by rogue policemen while on a mission to track down Islamic State-linked militants on southern Jolo Island, the Philippine Army chief said Tuesday, rejecting reports that they were killed in a friendly fire incident.
The army intelligence specialists – two officers and two enlisted men with the 11th Infantry Division – were “hot on the trail of Abu Sayyaf members, bomb makers, and suicide bombers” when members of the Jolo police force flagged them down on Monday, the army said in a statement.
It said local police allegedly shot the four without any provocation, although local police, in an incident report a day earlier, described the shootings as a “misencounter.”
“They were murdered,” army chief Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay said, as he demanded a “full blown investigation” into the incident.
“The soldiers were on a mission to identify the location of known terrorists in the area. Based on eyewitness accounts, no altercation transpired between the two parties nor was there any provocation on the part of the army personnel to warrant such carnage,” Gapay said.
He said that while the army was grieving for those killed, there would “be no let-up in our quest for truth and justice.”
Nine police officers have been identified as being involved in what originally was reported as a friendly fire incident.
National police spokesman Brig. Gen. Bernard Banac said police leadership had ordered the police officers be disarmed and restricted to the Jolo municipal police station.
“An investigation is under way. No stones will be left unturned,” Banac told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, Harry Roque, spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, had little to say about the case.
“We defer from making any statement other than the NBI has been asked to investigate the incident,” he said, referring to the Justice Department’s National Bureau of Investigation.
‘A few rotten eggs’
Army spokesman Col. Ramon Zagala said security forces in Jolo knew of the soldiers’ mission, so it was unlikely that police were not aware of their movements on the island.
“This is a setback to our anti-terror operations,” Zagala told BenarNews. “These were seasoned intelligence officers who could have contributed more to our anti-terror fight had they not been killed.”
He said the soldiers were about to identify the homes of key militants when they were gunned down.
“This is a crime done by a few rotten eggs in the police,” Zagala said. “But we cannot just let the deaths of our officers end there. Justice must be served.”
The bodies of Maj. Marvin Indamog, Capt. Irwin Managuelod and Sgt. Eric Velasco were flown to Manila on Tuesday for proper military funerals. The fourth victim, Cpl. Abdal Asula, was a native of Jolo and his body was claimed by his family.
The team of intelligence specialists was tracking militants serving under Mundi Sawadjaan, an operative identified as a key planner of suicide bombings that killed 23 people at a church in Jolo in January 2019. He is believed to be a nephew of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the top leader of the Philippine branch of Islamic State (IS).
During a raid in Metro Manila last Friday, police and military operatives killed four suspected Abu Sayyaf members who allegedly were working with Mundi Sawadjaan’s group to plot attacks in the majority Catholic nation, authorities said.