Ambush or mistaken identity?

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    WAS this an ambush or a case of mistaken identity?

    This is one of the questions that will have to be tackled by the National Bureau of Investigation when it starts probing the killing of Calbayog City Mayor Ronald Aquino and two of his security escorts in a firefight on Monday that also left two members of the PNP Provincial Enforcement Unit dead and another cop wounded.

    Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra yesterday ordered the NBI to probe the killings amid claims that members of the PNP fired at the mayor’s vehicle at around 5:30 p.m. at Laboyao Bridge in Barangay Lonoy.

    Reports said Aquino, 58, was on the way to attend the birthday party of his son when the firefight erupted.

    Aside from Aquino, also killed were his driver, Dennis Abayon, and his security detail, S/Sgt. Rodio Sario.

    The cops killed were identified as Capt. Joselito Tabada, chief of the PDEU-Samar and concurrent chief of Gandara town police station in Samar; and PDEU member S/Sgt. Cabococ Laoyon. Wounded were S/Sgt. Neil Matarum Cebu, also of PDEU, and an employee working for Aquino, Mansfield Labonete, who is currently confined at the St. Camillus Hospital.

    Citing the results of initial investigation, Eastern Visayas Regional Police Director Brig. Gen. Ronaldo de Jesus said it was the mayor’s side that opened fire at the lawmen, who fought back.

    A police report said the mayor and his men grew suspicious of men aboard an unmarked vehicle that was tailing them, and opened fire. The men aboard the tailing vehicle later turned out to be members of the PDEU and PNP Integrity Monitoring and Enforcement Group.

    But Samar Rep. Edgar Mary Sarmiento debunked the police report, saying the mayor was ambushed by members of the police force based on the accounts of witnesses. He added the cops wore bonnets and were armed with M-203 grenade launchers.

    “Humihingi ako ng tulong (I am asking for help). I can’t get justice from the Philippine National Police. I believe so,” Sarmiento, chair of the House committee on transportation, said in a radio interview. “Doon naman sa mga nang-ambush, masakit sabihin kaya lang mga naka-uniporme ito, mga miyembro pa ng PNP. Ako’y nagtataka bakit naka-bonnet at saka naka M-203 pa. Talagang handang-handa (Those who committed the ambush, it’s painful to say that they were in uniform, they’re members of the PNP. I was wondering why they were wearing bonnets and even had M-203 (grenade launchers).”

    In 2011, former Calbayog mayor Reynaldo Uy was also shot and killed. The case remains unresolved.

    Sarmiento, who believes that politics was behind the killing, belied the police claim that there was a firefight, saying witnesses would prove the mayor was ambushed.

    Vice President Leni Robredo, in a statement, said: “Hindi normal ang pagpaslang na ito. It should not be treated as normal that mayors, community organizers, lawyers, judges, journalists, children, and even victims of the drug trade are outright murdered in our streets or in their homes. We must connect the dots between these gruesome deaths and see the web that enables and emboldens these killings: Impunity, the normalization and incitement of violence, and the kill, kill, kill rhetoric coming from the highest offices.”

    De Jesus said the DEU and IMEG operatives were not after the mayor or his men, raising the possibility of mistaken identity.

    “Parang lumalabas nagkataon kasi nagkasabay lang sa daan ‘yan. Even sa initial report hindi naman subject ng operation itong si mayor. (It appears it’s just incidental they passed the road at the same time. Even in the initial report, the mayor is not subject of an operation),” he said.

    De Jesus said the DEU and IMEG men were on a different mission, but did not elaborate.

    “Definitely hindi subject ng operation, ‘yun ang sinigurado nila, si mayor, walang ganung ano. Walang ganung angulo. (Definitely, the mayor is not (the) subject of an operation, that’s what they guaranteed. There is no such an angle,” De Jesus said, citing the statement of the PDEU and IMEG policemen.

    Lt. Col. Ma. Bella Rentuaya, spokeswoman of the Eastern Visayas Regional Police, said a Special Investigation Task Group (SITG) Aquino had been established “to facilitate the prompt investigation of the case.”

    PNP spokesman Brig. Gen. Ildebrandi Usana said PNP chief Debold Sinas ordered De Jesus to conduct a thorough investigation of the incident. “We will keep the public informed at the soonest possible time,” Usana said, adding the firearms of the policemen will be subjected to forensic examination as part of the probe.

    “The group of Mayor Aquino was alleged to have initiated the shootout when his close-in security fired at the unmarked vehicle of the IMEG-PDEU group that was travelling in the same direction along the road,” said Usana.

    “The IMEG-PDEU group denies that Mayor Aquino was a subject of their operations or that he was targeted. The SITG shall confirm the veracity of this statement,” Usana also said.

    Usana said the PDEU and IMEG policemen were not aware who were aboard the van that opened fire on them.

    “It was only after the firefight that the said vehicle (van) was identified to be owned by Mayor Aquino. The same remains to be validated,” said Usana.

    In a Facebook post yesterday, Sarmiento appealed to President Duterte and Guevarra to allow the NBI to investigate what happened “since uniformed personnel, who are supposed to be the protectors of peace and order, were involved in the shooting incident.”

    “Ako’y nasasaktan na pinalalabas na shootout doon po sa ground zero. Maliwanag na maliwanag na sinasabi ng mga witnesses na talagang binaril muna ang sasakyan ni Mayor (It’s painful for me that they’re saying it was a shootout. It is clear according to witnesses that the mayor’s vehicle was shot first),” Sarmiento said. – With Ashzel Hachero and Wendell Vigilia