March 13, 2015 / 8:23 AM / in 2 years

Philippine police find fault at highest level in bungled mission

President Benigno Aquino walks past troops during the 29th Presidential Security Group (PSG) anniversary in Manila March 10, 2015.Romeo Ranoco

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino approved a bungled mission against Muslim rebels that led to the deaths of 44 police commandos, police said in a report on Friday, piling more pressure on the beleaguered leader.

The Jan. 25 clash shattered a three-year ceasefire with the country's biggest Muslim rebel group and threw a peace process into doubt.

Questions surrounding Aqunio's handling of the issue have blow up into his biggest political crisis which the police inquiry report looks likely to compound, especially as it found that Aquino had authorized his friend, suspended police general Alan Purisima, to take part in the mission even as he was being investigated for corruption.

Police commandos sneaked into a rebel area in the south to capture Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, an al Qaeda-linked bomb-maker with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head. Rebels ambushed the commandos and killed 44 of them.

The result of the inquiry came out days after Aquino said he was given wrong information about the mission, blaming the head of the Special Action Force, Getulio Napenas.

The police report said Aquino, Purisima and Napenas had "kept the information to themselves and deliberately failed to inform" the national police chief about the mission.

The report was based on statements from about 300 witnesses, police and military officials. Aquino, Purisima and the armed forces chief of staff were not interviewed.

The killings outraged politicians, some Catholic bishops and the public and Aquino has faced calls to step down.

Aquino said Napenas deviated from a plan presented to him two weeks before the operation. He said he was "fooled" by the people who knew most about what was happening.

Purisma's lawyer, Kristoffer James Purisima, said his client would respond to all allegations "at the proper time and before the proper forum".

Interior Minister Manuel Roxas said police were considering what charges to press.

The inquiry found that the U.S. forces had provided intelligence on the militants and evacuated wounded commandos, but had not taken part in combat.

Al Haj Ebrahim Murad, leader of the rebels involved in the clash, told Reuters in an interview on Mindanao island on Thursday his group would complete its investigation next week.

Murad said the clash was "a clear violation of the ceasefire" and their findings would be given to a Malaysian-led monitoring team.

"The police still considered our group a hostile force not peace partners. They attacked our community and we were forced to defend our people, our territory."

Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato and Erik dela Cruz; Editing by Jeremy Laurence, Robert Birsel

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