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by MGen Romeo B Dominguez AFP
CG, 8th Infantry Division 

(The author was the Commander of the Joint Task Force Comet (JTFC) which had three (3) brigades operating in Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi and TFZambo that was deployed in Zamboanga City. SOUTHCOM Hqs created JTFC effective 03 April 2001, and designated him as head in concurrent capacity as 1st Infantry Division (1ID) chief. He left JTFC on 22 Jun, and 1ID on 07 Jul and proceeded to head the Army's 8th Inf Div deployed in Leyte & Samar. He was promoted to his current rank effective 23 Dec 2001.)

            I was commander of the JTF Comet during the clash between the military and the Abu Sayaff Group (ASG) on 02 June 2001 in Lamitan. It is one of the 6 towns and 1 city of the island province of Basilan which fell under the Area of Responsibility (AOR) of the Army's 103rd Inf Brigade; it's commander was Col Jovenal Narcise until his relief on 06 June. Thereafter, the troops in Basilan nearly tripled, increasing the erstwhile lone brigade to three (3): two Infantry and one Marine; the deployment was completed by the time I left Basilan.

          Key to better understand the Lamitan incident is clarifying the existence of two (2) hospitals: Torres inside the compound taken over by the ASG and the Emergency District (LEDH), 1 km away, which I visited on 02 Jun from 10AM to about 1:30 in the afternoon. The subsequent vicious media attacks against my person were centered on this visit. The complaint that triggered two separate legislative hearings focused on the three areas which the investigations have unraveled based on the Lamitan witnesses' testimonies most of which merely confirmed the earlier findings of the Army Inspector General; ie:

           1.  The escape of the ASG through the back door of the church-cum-hospital compound o/a 5:30 pm. There was no order for the Army troops to withdraw: a section of Ranger was moved to the front but the remaining troops remained well positioned. The failure to stop the escape was traced to the ASG's use of the hostages as shield. The soldier, police and CVO's fired-to-miss; they could not risk to hurt the hostages.

           2.  There was no pay-off involving the military to free a rich hostage. The assertions of the lone witness were proven contrary to truth as follows:

        a.  That on my arrival at the LEDH, a non-existent black briefcase full of money was allegedly being carried by my aide who stayed outside the Head Doctor's office where I stayed after a tentative look-see of my casualties.  If indeed the notional briefcase contained lots of money, would I have not kept my aide within my sight all the time?;  would I allow my aide to deduct P5,000 from it to be given to the doctor?

        b.  The time (11 am) she said I departed from the hospital (I left past 12 noon) to fetch the hostages (and returned without the money) was long after the hostages had been rescued by the troops (before 10 am).

        c.  The latest assertion was that the (non-existent) money was a pay-off for the escape of the ASG. If that was the case, then it would be unthinkable for the money to be so-carried around; much more, shown to anyone.

        d.  She claimed that Col Narcise had been waiting for me when I arrived; it was I who waited for the Bde Comdr.  Note how the "witness" erred in his description of events; he adeptly inserted her own "interpretation" of my own actions, slanting them to support the main allegation.

           3.   My order not to redeploy the 18th IBn elements from Tuburan to Lamitan had been discussed by me, CSAFP Gen Villanueva, SOUTHCOM LGen Camiling and his AC3, Col Pabustan, weighing the following fresh inputs: the continuing engagement in Tuburan, intel report of an approaching ASG reinforcement towards Tuburan,  arrival of CTF and a Marine Company and the presence of 120+ soldiers, 40 policemen, armor vehicles and helicopters in Lamitan. The order was initially relayed by my aide, Lt Merioles, to the Bn S3 who was on the radio, on order of CSAFP; and which I relayed personally to Col Narcise when I met him in Lamitan. (I arrived at the LEDH by helicopter o/a 10 a.m.  of 02 Jun and sent the helicopter to pick-up Col Narcise at Campo Dos). It was at this time that I formulated my order "Assault before sundown" having received an information that the ASG at the "Hospital-Church compound" would attempt a breakaway at sundown to take advantage of darkness.

           Looking back,  the said Lamitan clash showcased the commitment of our soldiers to the service. Within 24 hours, they rescued 21 of 30 (or 70%) Dos Palmas hostages; unfortunately,  the bandits got away using the remaining victims as shield. The media slant on this aspect easily re-opened fresh wounds.  Industry giants' sensationalized and biased reporting easily blurred the line between fiction and facts.

            Including the brief period to prepare the battle areas and the actual clash of a little over 24 hours, the ''drama'' spanned about 2 days.  103rd Inf Bde had barely 2,000 troops less than half of whom could be maneuvered as others were doing rear-area activities and protection, camp and route security, CAA supervision, etc.  As it was a non-conventional situation, these "front lines troops" have to be distributed to several "battle areas" - or pre-selected sites of possible enemy congregations.  Civilian residents limited the potentials of indirect fires.  Commander's picture of his battle site is limited only to what his eyes can see; no satellite, radars, sensors to aid him. Contrast this with the months of mobilization the "high tech" U.S. Forces had to take following the "9/11 Incident". Then, came the daily 24-hour bombing of Afghanistan that took months.  Specific targets were shown in video screens moments before they are blasted away. The enemy was defeated; Bin Laden and Omar, however, are unaccounted for; Al-Qaeda remains a threat.  Nobody accused no one of "pay-off"; nor was there a call for "hearings-in-aid-of-legislation".  U.S. Congress simply appropriated for the war chest vs  International Terrorism.

We understand the long-suffering of the residents in the 8 or 9 years of the ASG's depredation but their fanned rumors about  the alleged soldiers' duplicity was insulting malicious and unfair. Small lapses of the commanders at the lowest level were magnified and linked to imagined collusion to feed  the whinings of an exasperated public; we would have wanted to end the people's grief by destroying the ASG holed-up in that compound. The dynamics of war as it impacted on soldiers steeped on laws, regulations, SOPs and respect for human lives, however, are a bit difficult to understand when the dust of battle and gunsmoke have settled down and the smell of gun powder and unwashed human bodies, both living and dying or dead, no longer permeate the air. Winning a battle is not like solving mathematical problem. Suntzu's book on "War" tagged it as an "art" not a "science".

             Your soldiers make mistakes; but under any circumstances, they wouldn't accept blood money.  The monster was a creation of the media that failed to validate their source of information; they then pressed on to condition the mind of people based on innuendos while the accuser mobilized witnesses who were willing to sign fabricated testimonies, and who seemed unfamiliar with laws on perjury and therefore unwary of the consequence.

           I believe I have given my best to provide command & leadership to the five (5) Infantry Brigades under my authority at 1ID/JTF Comet. I have suffered the ignominy of perceived failure due to breakdown of chain-of-command in one of these brigades: the 103rd  Inf Bde.  This was deployed in Basilan,  the same place where I spent some time going to the "front" to see  the situation on the ground and show myself to the troops at the real risks of being subjected to enemy fires. My actions have been misinterpreted portraying the worst possible scenario and presented to the public, in an extended trial by publicity that was applauded by fence-sitters who only have hatred for the soldiers, all   in a way contradictory to the most cherished legal tenet: "the accused is considered innocent until proven otherwise". This, after an extensive investigation conducted by the Army Inspector General the result of which proved I was not liable as I was allowed to head another command. I sought to understand the difficult experience of my accuser; but the motive of this stranger is something beyond my rational mind.  He claims to have a number of witnesses; two of those he presented confirmed during the investigation that the area of conflict was totally deserted by civilians. 

           My wish all through-out the investigation has been for the effort to extend to the moments the ASG decided to go to Lamitan, and why they targeted the compound, of all places. Only then can answer be found to such other questions as how the accuser's bodyguard-soldier was killed, and how the complainant could be so sure of actions that transpired in distant places and simultaneously be unable to recall those that happened under his very nose. CBCP spokesman Msgnr Quilitorio told me that Fr Nacorda admitted to him that the Lamitan priest never had any evidence; only "witnesses".  As observed by two senior Solons, the twenty-one Fr Nacorda herded during investigation bore affidavits uniformly written in English; although most of them only speak in the dialect.  And when two (2) were allowed to talk freely (in Pilipino), they refuted basically their written (English) testimonies.  

           It is within my right to demand restitution of my honor, shattered in the eyes of the public, but never in the eyes of God, my family, relatives & friends that actually multiplied in an spontaneous show of sympathy; this, I demand without prejudice to legal remedies I may take. They are options that have remained open to me as a citizen of this Republic, which I wish to continue to serve with the intensity of commitment that has been the hallmark of my more than three decades as soldier.  RBD

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