SAF 44: Their sacrifice saved lives
One question kept haunting Chief Supt. Noli Taliño after the Jan. 25, 2015 covert operation that ended in the massacre of 44 elite Special Action Force (SAF) commandos in Maguindanao: Is one terrorist worth the lives of 44 men?
“All the while, it was worth it. The motto of SAF explains it plainly: ang tagapagligtas (the savior),” said Taliño, now police director for Central Visayas.
Taliño, then the deputy SAF director when the Mamasapano clash occurred, said even his men realized that if they didn’t go after Zulkifli Bin Hir alias
“Marwan,” the Malaysian terrorist would have killed a lot of innocent people.
Marwan, a US-trained engineer and a senior member of the Indonesia-based, al-Qaida-linked terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), was allegedly responsible for the bombing of two nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia that killed 202 people, mostly Australian tourists, on Oct. 12, 2002.
As authorities pursued him, the alleged master bomb maker reportedly sought refuge in Central Mindanao and trained members of the local terrorist group Abu Sayyaf.
‘There was a problem’
Taliño said it took them years to plan the operation against Marwan.
He admitted that the US-based Central Intelligence Agency helped them find Marwan.
But Taliño said the foreign investigating agency did not take part in the actual operation.
“The operation was planned very carefully. We attempted to arrest him in 2013, and then in 2014, until we were successful to neutralize him in 2015. But then, towards the end, there was a problem,” he said.
Taliño refused to say who is to be blamed for the botched operation.
“There’s an ongoing investigation, and I don’t want to preempt it,” he said.
He recalled that on Jan. 25, 2015, SAF troopers, under the supervision of then SAF commander Chief Supt. Getulio Napeñas, sneaked into the town of Mamasapano in Maguindanao and killed Marwan at dawn of Jan. 25, 2015.
The withdrawing troops, however, met armed men.
The 55th company covering the escape was surrounded by both Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and was left with only one survivor.
“I was talking through the radio to one of the SAF commandos on the field who sought for reinforcement. And suddenly, there was a long silence. I later knew that 44 of our men were killed. Looking at their coffins, I did not know what to do,” he said.
He admitted that he had to ask himself if the lives of his men were too much to pay for the life of one terrorist.
In the end, he added they had to go back to the SAF motto – to be willing to give up their own lives in order to save the lives of others.
Taliño commemorated the death of the “SAF 44” in a Mass held at the St. Ignatius Chapel inside Camp Sergio Osmeña, headquarters of the Police Regional Office in Central Visayas based in Cebu City.
At least 20 SAF troopers based in Cebu and several policemen attended the Mass presided by Fr. Reynaldo Piañar, the chaplain of PRO-7.
Also present were the families of Cebuano policemen–PO2 Windel Candano and PO1 Romeo Cempron—who were among the 44 SAF troopers who died in the botched police operation.
“PRO-7 commends the heroism of the SAF 44 who sacrificed their lives to capture a terrorist. They died meaningfully. Their courage and dedication serves as an inspiration for our policemen,” said Taliño who tried to hold back tears while giving a speech after the Mass.
A shooting event will be held in Lapu-Lapu City on Friday in honor of the SAF 44.
Dr. Christine Cempron, the widow of PO1 Cempron, said she thought the pain would subside as the years pass by.
“I underestimated the pain. I thought it will be lessened since two years have passed. But when Jan. 25 arrived, I still can picture out what happened,” she told reporters.
“It’s not easy to be a wife of men in uniform. When they go to an operation, you don’t know if they would be able to come back. It’s difficult. But that is the profession that my husband loved and I respect that,” she said.
Marciana Candano, the mother of PO2 Candano, said they are happy to hear the promise of President Rodrigo Duterte to confer the Medal of Valor to the families of the 44 SAF troopers.
“I’m happy with the support from the government. I hope the President will make good of his promise. But more than that, we hope that justice will soon be served,” she said.
A Medal of Valor means additional monthly allowances and educational benefits to the families of the recipients.
Taliño admitted that he felt bad that charges were filed against SAF officials, who he said, did their best to get Marwan.
Taliño was among those impleaded in the complaint filed at the Office of the Ombudsman.
But the anti-graft office eventually cleared him and other officers.
Instead, the Ombudsman filed charges of graft and usurpation of powers against dismissed Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Alan Purisima and former SAF commander Getulio Napeñas at the Sandiganbayan for their role in the botched Mamasapano anti-terror raid.
Continue the fight
“We worked so hard. We lost 44 of our men and yet we were charged. We expected help but we got sued in return. I’m happy that some of us were eventually cleared,” he said.
Taliño said they did their best and was not inspired by the $6-million reward offered by the US government in exchange of arresting Marwan.
“For several years, no one attempted to arrest Marwan except the SAF. Only this unit had the courage to go after him. We did not think of the reward money because that will never go to us,” he said.
Taliño said the reward money is intended for the intelligence asset that we used in the operation.
He said while it’s time for the country to move on, it should not forget the heroism and bravery of the SAF 44.”
“SAF members became closer to each other because of that incident. We found out that SAF needs to do more rigid trainings to improve its services,” Taliño said.
To the families of the 44 SAF troopers, Taliño advised them: “Do not give up. Let us continue the fight.”
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