MANILA – Palace and military officials justified Wednesday the decision to have the top brass of all security and defense agencies join President Duterte in Russia even after government had gotten intelligence on the Maute Group’s plan to attack Marawi City.
The AFP-Palace defense: these officials had roles in the agenda of the visit to Moscow, and their physical presence in Mindanao would have been redundant since they were not expected to wield firearms anyway.
Among those who flew with the President were Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, AFP chief of staff Lt. Gen. Eduardo Año, PNP chief Gen. Ronald dela Rosa, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon.
The presence in Moscow of the officials had been repeatedly questioned by critics and by some Supreme Court justices in oral arguments on the martial law declaration in Mindanao, but on Wednesday, government said Manila needed to signal to Russia its commitment to deepen relations.
The security officials were also needed since discussions between the Philippine and Russian leaders included the former sourcing some military equipment from the latter.
Govt knew of attack as of May 18
In his consolidated comment submitted Monday to the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Jose Calida had said the government received information on May 18, four days before the President’s party flew to Moscow, that the Maute Group had plans to attack Marawi, and plant the ISIS flag there.
The government also knew that the Mautes were already in league with Isnilon Hapilon, Abu Sayyaf Group leader whom ISIS had tagged its emir for Southeast Asia.
On May 23, as government forces moved to arrest Hapilon at a site in Marawi, the Maute-led group, estimated at 500, put up a strong defense to protect Hapilon, triggering the now 3-week-old siege of the once-bustling city.
Calida told the SC the Maute Group “prematurely” triggered the siege because of the operation against Hapilon, even though its date for the attack of Marawi was still three days away, on May 23.
While military forces on the ground were taken aback by the strength and firepower of the Mautes on the afternoon of May 23, the top leaders of the DND, AFP and PNP were all in Russia.
They all rushed back home after President Duterte cancelled the rest of his trip to Russia, albeit after a hastily-set meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At Wednesday’s Palace briefing, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said the presence of the top commanders in the Philippines when the Marawi siege broke was not necessary, since they were not the ones wielding the guns anyway.
The ground commanders are also more familiar with the situation.
AFP spokesperson BGen. Restituto Padilla said their top brass were thought to be needed in Russia then, considering the significance of that trip.
Nonetheless, the AFP said it was good that they had gotten wind of the plot to attack Marawi and neighboring cities ahead of the actual raid, because if they had not been able to make preparations, the dire consequences could have been worse, and affected much bigger territory in Mindanao.
“Historical po yung visit ng pagpunta sa Russia. Kinakailangan po na nandun yung ating pinakamataas na opisyal ng hukbong sandatahan upang ipakita yung commitment na nais nating simulan dun sa pagbubukas ng relasyon na ‘yun at tama lang po ‘yun [The visit to Russia was historic. It was important to have the highest AFP official there to show our commitment to expand and deepen relations with Russia],” said Padilla.
Abella weighed in with, “On the other hand, the top commanders need not be there physically present because they need not be there to pull out guns. These matters are related to ground commanders.”