US denies involvement in Philippine anti-terror raid

ZAMBOANGA CITY - The U.S. denied any involvement Monday in an anti-terror operation in the southern Philippines that saw 44 police commandos killed, local media reported.

The denial comes in the wake of calls in Philippine newspapers for an investigation into allegations that U.S. soldiers participated in the operation to capture Malaysian bomb expert Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, on Jan. 25.

Kurt Hoyer, press attaché at the U.S. embassy in Manila, told MindaNews that the U.S. was not involved in planning or implementing the operation, although they did assist in recovering casualties from the 11-hour battle in Mamasapano township, Maguindanao.

He said: “At the request of the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines], U.S. service members serving in JSOTF-P [Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines] responded to assist in the evacuation of casualties after the firefight in Maguindanao.”

Hoyer denied a report in the Manila Standard newspaper that U.S. military intelligence and aerial surveillance drones were used in the operation, citing a police general’s claims that the U.S. government “provided President Benigno Aquino III with ‘actionable intelligence’ to pin down the precise location” of Marwan.

“There were no US casualties,” Hoyer added.

The U.S. has a strong military presence in the Philippines but foreign troops are barred from taking part in operations on Philippine soil.

House Representatives Neri Colmenares and Carlos Zarate filed a resolution last week asking for an investigation into the involvement of Americans in the Mamasapano operation.

In a press statement Sunday, Zarate cited witness reports claiming at least one American soldier had died during the fighting.

A photograph published by MindaNews showed what appeared to be two white men in civilian clothes assisting the evacuation of wounded police commandos from the Philippine National Police office in Maguindanao, on Mindanao island.

The operation to target Marwan -- a leading figure in Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaeda-linked Southeast Asian group behind the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia -- saw around 400 police commandos descend on Maguindanao, only to run into opposition from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

The police were also seeking to arrest Basit Usman, a Filipino bomb-maker linked to Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf.

Marwan, who had a $5 million FBI bounty on his head, had been reported killed in 2012 in an airstrike in Jolo, an island stronghold of Abu Sayyaf insurgents in the Sulu archipelago.

Since the Mamasapano incident, authorities have reported that Marwan was killed while Usman escaped.

Meanwhile, prosecutors have prepared criminal charges against 30 officials and members of the rebel groups involved in the Mamasapano incident, GMA News reported Monday.

Mujiv Hataman, governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, said Monday that four civilians, including a five-year-old girl, were killed in the fighting and six injured.

The battle had threatened to derail a peace treaty signed in March between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to resolve a decades-long conflict that has seen more than 120,000 people killed.

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