Missed opportunity? AFP says Jolo blasts could have been averted if June police shooting did not happen

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 27)— The deadly twin blasts that rocked Jolo, Sulu earlier this week could have been prevented if not for June’s shooting incident in the same town that left four military intelligence officers dead, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said Thursday.

The Army earlier revealed that the four slain soldiers were on an official mission to hunt down targets— the same alleged suicide bombers in the recent attacks — when they were gunned down by Jolo policemen two months ago.

Speaking to CNN Philippines, AFP chief Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay expressed regret over this “unfortunate” shooting incident, saying the group was already on track in their hunt for the suspects.

“We were so close to capturing them (suicide bombers). They were about to pinpoint the exact location when this unfortunate shooting incident happened. Sayang talaga (it’s unfortunate),” Gapay said in an interview with The Source.

“I even said that we could have prevented another Jolo cathedral bombing, or eto na nga, ‘yung nangyari na nga dito sa Jolo again (or this incident in Jolo again),” he added.

Gapay also noted that the shooting incident “caused disruption” in their personnel’s intelligence operations and coverage in the area.

At a plenary hearing on Wednesday, Gapay said the military were going to take down the suspects "in a matter of minutes."

“The bombers saw an opportunity there to really execute their planned bombing,” Gapay said.

Nine police officers are facing four counts of murder and one count of planting of evidence over the fatal shooting, which killed operatives from the 9th Intelligence Service Unit of the 11th Infantry Division.

Gapay added that in the AFP, once a member violates regulations, that person gets relieved of their post right away and is placed in custody if needed

"So, we were surprised that those who were involved in the incident were just put in restrictive custody and they were not relieved of their positions... despite (the) investigation already ongoing," he said. "I think it is in the best interest of everyone that for the impartial investigation to proceed, those involved would be relieved so they could not influence, in whatever capacity, the investigation process."

In a Senate inquiry last week, the policemen involved claimed they could not determine who fired the first shot in the scene. One of the officers likewise denied the group planted a rifle by the left arm of one of the victims.

Police officers connected with suicide bombers?

The AFP chief meanwhile labeled claims that the police officers may have had connections with the suicide bombers as “speculation” — with authorities still studying the real motive of the shooting incident.

Philippine National Police Chief PGen Archie Gamboa also rejected calls for the relief of the Jolo police force, saying the PNP maintains “full confidence” in its personnel in the absence of sufficient evidence that would link them to the blast suspects.

Despite these recent developments, Gapay stressed the armed forces continue to have a strong and professional relationship with their police counterparts.

Martial law an option, but current measures will suffice

Meanwhile, Gapay said the AFP is not closing its doors on the possibility of recommending a Sulu-wide martial law following the blasts.

However, he stressed the need for “immediate” actions and measures to combat security threats in the area, noting that the imposition of martial law may take time.

“It remains as an option to us but for now what is important are actions, measures that can be immediately implemented and executed. Because you know martial law it should pass through legislative, congressional approval and that would take time,” Gapay said.

For now, the AFP chief noted authorities would have to strictly enforce current measures on deck, including the Presidential Proclamation 55 (declaration of state of national emergency on account of lawless violence in Mindanao).

Gapay also cited the anti-terrorism law as one platform that can help local security forces address the terrorism situation in the area.

President Rodrigo Duterte will also consider the possibility of placing Sulu province under martial law, Malacañang earlier said, but stressed the recommendation would have to earn the nod and pass the scrutiny of both the legislative and judiciary branches.

Monday’s twin explosions in Jolo have left at least 15 people dead, including soldiers and civilians, and 74 others injured. Gapay said the AFP is confident that they are “closing in” on the perpetrators of the attack, and believes the concerned parties are still in a hideout in Sulu.