Philippine troops continue the hunt for MILF rebels in Mindnaao. (Mindanao Examiner Photo / Mark Navales)
MANILA, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Sept. 28, 2008) – An alliance of militant Filipino teachers opposed to the continued stay of US forces in the Philippines urged the Philippine Senate to investigate the involvement of the American military in combat operations in Mindanao.
The Alliance of Concerned Teachers said the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee on the Visiting Forces Agreement should investigate the US role in the operation that killed Abu Sayyaf leader Aldam Tilao, also known as Abu Sabaya.
ACT urged the Senate to summon two Philippine Marines officers, Major General Juancho Sabban and Major Gieram Aragones, to shed light on the participation of US soldiers in the Abu Sayyaf operation. Sabban is currently the commander of the anti-terror Joint Task Force Comet based in Sulu province, while Aragones is a Marine intelligence officer.
“These two officers gave the American journalist Mark Bowden extensive interviews in which they openly acknowledged working with the US Central Intelligence Agency and the US Navy SEAL in an operation to track down and eventually eliminate Abu Sabaya,” Antonio Tinio, ACT chairman, said in a statement.
Tinio said Bowden’s article recounts the roles played by the Philippine military, US commandos, and the CIA in hunting down the Abu Sayyaf group that kidnapped 20 people, including a US missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham, and California man Guillermo Sobero, from Dos Palmas resort in Palawan Island in 2001.
Details of the US intelligence agencies’ role in tracking down Sabaya’s group using the most advanced eavesdropping equipment were contained in an article titled “Jihadists in Paradise” by Bowden for the Atlantic Monthly.
Bowden is author of the best-selling book “Blackhawk Down,” and has a number of books and articles being developed into Hollywood films and box office hit “Black Hawk Down” is his biggest film to date.
“A kidnapping at a Philippine resort triggered a yearlong hunt for pirate terrorists and their American hostages. A behind-the-scenes tale of intrigue, spy craft, and betrayal,” wrote Bowden in his opening piece.
Tinio said Bowden's article recounts that two US Navy SEAL teams participated in the mission that resulted in the killing of Tilao. “They served as backups to the team led by then Captain Aragones. That wasn’t just a training exercise, it was a combat mission,” he said, referring to the US Navy Seal teams.
He said the revelations made by Sabban and Aragones in Bowden’s article are clear evidence that US troops directly participated in combat operations which violated VFA and the Philippine Constitution. The RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty and the VFA only allow the presence of US troops on Filipino territory for joint military exercises.
Tinio said the two officers provided much of the material for Bowden’s article which was later adapted into a Hollywood film.
“We’re not just talking about violations of the terms of the VFA. The article confirms that the CIA, US military intelligence, and even the FBI have been operating freely in the south in the name of the so-called war on terror, with the full consent and cooperation of our government.”
“It also confirms that the many joint exercises being conducted in Mindanao are used as a cover for US military operations in the area. This is making a mockery of the Constitution,” Tinio said.
Jihadists in Paradise revolve around the ordeal of the American missionary hostages, who were kept for 18 months by the Abu Sayyaf and the death of Tilao. The movie portrays the role played by the US Central Intelligence Agency against Abu Sayyaf militants in the southern Philippines.
An elite team of US-trained Philippine troops tracked down and killed Tilao in a sea battle in the Zamboanga Peninsula in July 2002, nearly six months after 1,200 US soldiers descended on Basilan Island to help train and advise the local military.
A video of the operation taken by a US spy plane, which was posted in the Atlantic Monthly website (http://www.theatlantic.com/movies/bowden/surveillance-9.mhtml), showed 6 black figures, believed to be Tilao and his group, walking to a waiting speedboat — guarded by another figure — under the cover of darkness.
Senior Filipino military commanders likened the black and white footage to a Hollywood espionage movie. The video was taken using a thermal camera.
Days before Sabaya’s death, troops pounced on his group that was holding the remaining hostages in Zamboanga’s jungles, rescuing Gracia Burnham and a Basilan nurse, Ediborah Yap. Martin Burnham, however, was killed by a stray bullet. Sobero was beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf and left his corpse in the jungle in Basilan.
Some Filipino lawmakers have also militant groups and political activists in questioning the continued stay of US troops in the southern Philippines, especially in areas where Filipino forces are battling Muslim and communist insurgencies.
Another militant group, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, also called for then expulsion of all US troops deployed in the southern Philippines.
“The continuing presence of US troops in various parts of Mindanao already goes beyond what the Philippine Senate contemplated as temporary during its deliberations on the VFA in 1999. The Senate deliberations defined 'temporary' as being about six months. The US troops have been in Mindanao for six years,” Renato Reyes, Jr., the group’s secretary-general, said.
The agreement between the Philippines and the United States which covers forces visiting temporarily is intended to clarify the terms under which the foreign military is allowed to operate.
Lawmakers also questioned the constitutionality of the treaty and they have filed two resolutions seeking a probe into the continuing presence and the involvement of the US military in local military activities and a review of the VFA.
Filipino lawmakers are to begin an inquiry into the role of US troops deployed in the southern Philippines. The Joint Legislative on Oversight Committee on Visiting Forces Agreement has already created a fact-finding team to investigate the allegations.
The team, headed by Rep. Antonio Cuenco and Senator Rodolfo Biazon are expected to arrive in Zamboanga City on October 1 to start the probe. US forces maintain several small bases inside the Western Mindanao Command headquarters, the Philippine Navy base and the Philippine Air Force and Philippine Army bases in Zamboanga City.
Reps. Maria Isabelle Climaco and Erico Fabian have joined the growing calls for an investigation into the continued stay of US forces in Zamboanga City since 2002, when Manila and Washington agreed to hold a joint military exercise here. (Mindanao Examiner)