The Philippine military admitted for the first time Thursday that “tactical lapses” had led to the escape of Muslim Abu Sayyaf kidnappers from an army cordon in the country’s south.
The military however rejected allegations by a prominent Roman Catholic priest that some top army officers had accepted bribes to allow the rebels, now holding 21 hostages, to escape.
“Agreeably, there were tactical lapses committed in that stand-off in Lamitan,” senior military official Brigadier General Romeo Dominguez said in a statement.
He was referring to the military operation he led to quash the Abu Sayyaf who stormed a church and hospital compound on Basilan island’s Lamitan town on June 2.
Dominguez however denied a claim by Lamitan’s parish priest Cirilo Nacorda that he and four other senior military officers received part of alleged ransom payoffs to allow the rebels to escape.
The Abu Sayyaf still hold two Americans and 19 Filipinos in Basilan’s vast jungle terrain in a nearly three-month hostage crisis that has embarrassed the government.
Hundreds of soldiers had surrounded the Abu Sayyaf at the Lamitan compound, only to slip through a back door. Nacorda’s bodyguard was killed in the attack, while the priest managed to escape. “The organizational shortcomings, inadequacies of the units were obvious to me, and which we tried to patch-up on the spot,” Dominguez said.
Nacorda claimed he has gathered “strong and hard evidence” that Dominguez and several other officers connived with the Abu Sayyaf to allow them to escape with the hostages.
Among the hostages were three Americans, one of whom has since been reportedly beheaded, taken from a May 27 raid by the Abu Sayyaf on a western island resort.
Dominguez said he would file a libel suit against Nacorda for having destroyed his reputation and “hurting the very people who rescued him alive from the clutches of the Abu Sayyaf.”
“Every soldier in that clash was raring to skin the Abu Sayyaf bandits alive,” Dominguez stressed. “The eventual escape broke their hearts and shattered their pride, but they moved on as they buried the dead and those hurt licked their wounds.
“I have not heard of anyone talking of pay-off. Had there been any, I would have skinned him alive,” he said.
Nacorda told the Daily Inquirer newspaper he learned from nurses and other staff from the Lamitan emergency hospital during the siege that “they saw” two top military officers “bringing a black attache case” full of 1,000 peso (US$18.75) bills. He did not elaborate.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Edilberto Adan in a television interview in Manila Thursday said most of Nacorda’s purported evidence was “hearsay.”
But he vowed to look into accusations to protect the military’s integrity, adding though he found Nacorda “very biased.”
Nacorda, who carries a gun and supports the killing of Abu Sayyaf, was abducted by the rebels in 1994 but was later released after a huge ransom was reportedly paid by the government.