SULU, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Mar. 26, 2008) – The Philippines' Department of Justice has sent a team of prosecutors to investigate the killing of seven civilians and an off-duty soldier during a military operation in the southern province of Sulu.
The team, headed by Regional State Prosecutor Jaime Umpa, was sent Wednesday by Justice Secy. Raul Gonzales. Umpa said they briefed Tan about their task.
"We will investigate the killings in Maimbung town. There will be a thorough investigation and we will file criminal charges against those who will be found guilty," Umpa told the Mindanao Examiner.
The raid February 4, the military insisted, was a legitimate operation that targeted the Abu Sayyaf, which is holding a kidnapped trader, Rosalie Lao, in the town.
Seven of those killed by soldiers were two children, two teenagers and a pregnant woman, including a seaweed farmer and a village councilor.
CHR Regional Director Jose Manuel Mamauag said there was no Abu Sayyaf in the village and that seven of those slain in the military attack were innocent civilians. "None of them was an Abu Sayyaf member. Seven civilians and a government soldiers were killed in that attack," he said.
Mamauag's reports detailed how troops attacked and plundered the houses of villagers. Mamauag recommended the filing of criminal charges against the soldiers involved in the raid.
The military restrained the more than 50 soldiers who took part in the operation and most of them are members of the so-called elite and US-trained Army Light Reaction Company and the Navy's Special Warfare Group.
The military has ordered a separate probe of the killings after Tan vowed to file charges against the soldiers. The killings also sparked massive protests from international and local human rights organizations and civil society groups.
"Secretary Gonzales is concerned about the incident and allegations of a whitewash (in the military investigation)," he said. "Secretary Gonzales' marching order to this panel is to conduct an impartial investigation and to identify the perpetrators (of the killings)," Umpa said.
The country's largest Muslim rebel group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, also praised Mamauag for his unbiased report into the killings. Survivors of the carnage testified in investigations that soldiers opened fired on villagers as they pleaded for their life.
Four of those killed were shot at sea as they fled for safety on boat. One of the survivors Rawina Wahid, wife of the slain soldier, Pfc. Ibnul Wahid, said her husband was hogtied and tortured by soldiers before being shot at the back of his head.
"My husband told the soldiers that he is a member of the Philippine Army, but they never listened and dragged him out of the house, bound his hands behind his back and then shot him. They did not listen to our pleading and they killed my husband," she said.
She said she saw four US soldiers on a navy boat where the body of her husband was brought. "I saw four American soldiers on the boat before Filipino troops blinded folded me," she told reporters. Wahid said she boarded the boat that took her husband's remains to a military base in Jolo town.
Tan said there were no reports that US soldiers took part in the actual operations. "US soldiers are all over Sulu, training Filipino troops and engaged in humanitarian missions," he said.
He said US troops deployed in Sulu are not allowed to participate in actual combat operations. "They are not allowed to join Filipino troops in actual combat operations. Their role is strictly to assist and advice the Armed Forces (of the Philippines) in anti-terror operations," he said.
Philippine and US military authorities have repeatedly denied American troops were involved in the raid in the village of Ipil.
The slain civilians were identified as Marisa Payian, 4; Wedme Lahim, 9; Alnalyn Lahim, 15; Sulayman Hakob, 17; Kirah Lahim, 45; Eldisim Lahim, 43; Narcia Abon, 24. Two of the raiders were also killed and four others wounded after armed villagers retaliated.
One of the victims had been shot at close range in the forehead, his right eye was gorged out and right ear missing. One had a missing finger while another had burns on his body and legs. Tan branded the killings as “barbaric and dastardly.”
Reps. Yusop Jikiri, of Sulu province and Mujiv Hataman, of Basilan have separately called for a congressional investigation into the killings in Maimbung town. Jikiri, a former rebel leader of the Moro National Liberation Front, said the off-duty soldier killed along with seven civilians was shot in front of his wife.
"Wahid was reportedly hogtied first before he was shot in front of her. The wife, in fact, showed the military uniform of her husband, but the soldiers merely ignored the plea of Mrs. Wahid. Later, Mrs. Wahid was taken by the soldiers to the rubber boat allegedly driven by an American soldier," Jikiri said in a privilege speech.
Hataman also filed a resolution seeking for an urgent investigation of the killings, which he described as "despicable, loathsome and ruthless."
He said: "There is no valid reason, especially for the soldiers who are supposed to be the protector of the people, to kill innocent civilians, particularly children." (Mindanao Examiner)