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Armed services must work more closely together

We can understand President Duterte’s quickly accepting responsibility and blame for the misencounter in Samar last week between Philippine Army troopers of the 87th Infantry Battalion, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and policemen of the Philippine National Police (PNP) 805th Regional Mobile Force Battalion. Six policemen were killed and nine others were wounded.

After relatives of the slain policemen demanded justice and wanted someone to be held accountable, the President said, “I would like to tell you that the ultimate blame, the fault is on me.” The President, under the Constitution, is the “Commander-in-Chief of all armed forces of the Philippines” and these include the PNP as well as the AFP.

Still, it is important that the whole story is known, not so much to determine who is to blame, as to ensure that the unfortunate incident is not repeated. For government operations in Samar against the New People’s Army (NPA) are bound to continue, perhaps even worsen, now that the peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the NPA, and the National Democratic Front (NDF) have broken down.

It seems that both the AFP and the PNP were conducting operations against the same group of NPA rebels in the hinterlands of Sta. Rita, Samar. For six days, a 16-man team from the Army’s 87th Infantry Battalion had been out in the mountainous area of barangay San Roque. The policemen of the PNP regional mobile force battalion were hunting the same NPA group. They ended up shooting at each other.

There was evidently inadequate radio contact between the two government groups out in the field. More important, there was no coordination between the two armed forces – the AFP and the PNP – even while they were operating against the same enemy in the same region of the country.

The two armed services have conducted their separate investigations and by now have determined how things went wrong in the field. The government will continue investigating the incident, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said, not so much to pin blame on anyone as to take steps to ensure that the unfortunate incident will not happen again.

The Samar shooting recalled for some the Mamasapano incident of January 2015, in which 44 PNP Special Action Force men were wiped out by Moro rebel groups, while awaiting support from Army troopers encamped in the area. For that incident, former President Aquino and his AFP chief-of-staff came to be investigated by a Senate committee.

The Samar incident is not of the same magnitude as Mamasapano but the two share the same element of miscommunication, of inadequate coordination of operations. The ongoing probe on the Samar misencounter should help our two major armed services work more closely and more efficiently together in the fight against crime and subversion in the country.