June 21, 2001, Newsbreak Weekly, A military fiasco in Basilan, by Howie G. Severino, Newsbreak contributor,
SHORTLY after midnight on June 2, about 100 Scout Rangers arrived at the wharf of Lamitan, Basilan, with hardly a clue about what awaited them. They had just graduated from Ranger school in Fort Bonifacio a week before and could now be counted among the Army's elite troops.
But the members of Scout Ranger Class 142 were ill-prepared for this mission. They had received no briefing about the operation or the place. Most had never been to Basilan before. Moreover, upon their graduation, they had turned in their radios, heavy weaponry, and other equipment because they were about to be dispersed to mother units around the country. They were on standby as a contingency force in Fort Bonifacio when they were suddenly called into action.
At the wharf in Lamitan, a first batch of 70 Rangers piled onto two Army trucks and drove into town to reinforce an Army battalion that had been battling the Abu Sayyaf in the hills since the day before. As they approached St. Peter's church near the town center, they didn't know that the night's quiet had been a lull in a firestorm. All hell rained down on the Rangers.
Sniper fire came from various dark directions. Rifle-propelled grenades disabled one of their trucks. The soldier next to the driver was killed instantly. Another private, Jopats Patok, bled to death as his buddies couldn't get him out of the line of fire. His wife is scheduled to give birth this month.
Unknown to the troops, Abu Sayyaf gunmen already occupied the highest points of the town--the solid church tower, a water tank, and tall coconut trees. Suddenly, the .50-caliber guns of the government's armored vehicles just down the street responded with a barrage of their own. Not a single Ranger caught in the ambush had been equipped with a radio.
Caught by surprise
The Rangers had been completely surprised, and they suffered for it. Three were killed on the spot, eight wounded. Inexplicably, the bandits had concentrated their elite forces and hostages in one vulnerable spot in a town known to be a Christian stronghold. Yet the government bungled that chance.
Still shellshocked from being ambushed in their first exposure to combat, and lacking guns and ammunition, these Rangers were sent repeatedly into battle all day long against experienced gunmen in superior positions. By the middle of the afternoon, the soldiers were rationing their bullets.
Under the cover of darkness and a hail of bullets from their reinforcements, the Abu Sayyaf escaped the enclosed hospital and church compound with nearly all of their hostages, adding into the mix four hospital personnel to attend to their wounded comrades.
The ambush of the Rangers was only the first evidence of military ineptness. What astounded witnesses was how disorganized the Army seemed to be throughout the day, unable to use the daylight hours to regroup and execute a plan for the hostage situation. Army reinforcements did not arrive with fresh ammunition or communications equipment, despite the obvious significance of this clash.
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Basic rules of warfare were not followed. No tactical command post was established to coordinate the various forces arrayed against the Abu Sayyaf, including the local police force and armed civilians. Senior officers were absent; a junior Army captain seemed to be calling the shots.
The predictable attack-and-retreat maneuvers by the Army's armored vehicles along the same street allowed the bandits to focus a rifle-propelled grenade and destroy one of the tanks, killing two soldiers inside, including fresh PMA graduate Lt. Kenneth Bulong.
On the street, I witnessed impromptu planning sessions of the Rangers without reference to any maps. "Walang lalabas na buhay," one junior officer was overheard exhorting men tasked with assaulting the hospital.
Masters of the terrain
The use of military firepower appeared to be crude: helicopter gunships were ordered to fire rockets at sniper positions, but some missed and hit civilian homes, wounding even children. Despite the dense population around the battle zone, civilians were not ordered to evacuate and were left to make their own decisions.
Local government officials were not visible to help in crowd control and provide information to soldiers unfamiliar with the town's layout. The mayor was inside his own compound surrounded by guards.
With scant intelligence, no radio equipment or means of coordination, little ammunition, civilians in the way, and their morale sapped by the glaring incompetence of their superior officers, the government's ground troops found it impossible to prevent the Abu Sayyaf from escaping through the same way they had entered the town.
Within hours, the bandits were back in the hills where they are the so-called "masters of the terrain." With the hostages divided into smaller groups, it will no longer be possible to attempt an operation that could free them all and end the crisis with one blow.
In the aftermath of the fiasco in Lamitan, brigade commanders were shuffled and there was understandable infuriation among officers in Army bases around the country. But it's not clear what kind of lessons the military will reap from this experience.
To the public, however, there is now much less mystery about why the Abu Sayyaf seems able to do what it pleases.