MANILA -- This is one for the books.
Newly-confirmed Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Roy A. Cimatu’s storied past as a brilliant tactician and strategist during his illustrious long military career where he saw action in the Mindanao war in 2001, is worth recalling now that his department is fighting another battle to protect the country’s remaining rich natural resources from illegal mining, loggers and poachers.
His achievement in the military, particularly during the all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Central Mindanao in 2001 gave him the edge to be promoted as chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) with the four-star rank, the highest in the military service.
Here is Gen. Cimatu’s story worth reading as written by this writer in his book, “Gallantry in Mindanao.”
As a brilliant tactician and strategist, Cimatu earned the sobriquet “General Pacman” for capturing most of the 46 MILF camps one after the other, referring to the character in the once highly popular computer game that devours everything that blocks his way. The aggressiveness of General Cimatu at the height of the fighting between government forces and the rebels was so well-known that then AFP chief of staff Gen. Angelo T. Reyes himself dubbed Cimatu as “General Pacman.’’
At the turn of new millennium, the MILF became restive in Central Mindanao. Its camps sprouted in various parts of the region, which was a blatant violation of the Ceasefire Agreement signed in 1997. The military was watching keenly the unfolding events of the “take-and-talk” strategy the MILF was pursuing. It was a creeping invasion right under the very nose of the AFP, whose hands in the ongoing peace process at that time had been tied.
From 1995 up to 2001, the MILF increased its strength by 20 percent annually and its firearms procurement by 21 percent based on the monitoring done by the AFP and police intelligence community. The military has also recorded intermittent clashes between government forces and MILF rebels. When the tempo of the unprovoked attacks escalated starting January 2000, AFP authorities expressed serious concern. Then in February, the unexpected happened. The MILF carried out a series of bombings, the heinous of which was the blasting of an interisland barge the MIV Mediatrix in Ozamiz City (Misamis Occidental), killing 39 people and wounding many.
On March 16, 2000, the MILF’s 303rd Brigade led by Abdul Rakman G. Macapaar, alias Commander Bravo, attacked and occupied the town of Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte. The 4th Infantry Division responded swiftly. Fortunately, the First Marine Brigade under Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Teodosio had arrived two days earlier in Cagayan de Oro City from Palawan for deployment to Balabagan, Lanao del Sur to contain the perimeter defense of Camp Abubakar, the largest MILF camp and seat of power of the rebels.
“That was the original plan,” General Cimatu said.
But the sudden attack on Kauswagan changed all that. He said he diverted the deployment of the 1st Marine Brigade and the 1st Scout Ranger Battalion of the Philippine Army to the besieged town where the MILF was holding some 300 civilian hostages.
The arrival of additional troops was timely, he said because he only had a small force at the time and there were 400 MILF rebels occupying Kauswagan. The general added his decision to redeploy the Marines “was very crucial because had I not used the Marines, it would have been difficult to launch a counterattack.”
The Marines struck with blitzkrieg precision that sent the MILF retreating in wild abandon, leaving their hostages behind. Kauswagan was under the command of the two brigades, the 1st Marine Brigade and the Army’s 402nd Brigade under Army Col. Samuel Bagasin.
Cimatu personally went inside an Aglipayan church, where some of the hostages were kept, and told them that the rebels had fled in disarray. To avoid being arrested, they discarded their firearms, took off their fatigue uniforms and changed into civilian clothes. The rebels then mixed with the civilian populace. The next day, Cimatu ordered his troops to conduct clearing operations to ensure that all the guerillas had left.
On March 18, 2000, the Marines proceeded to Inudaran to attack another MILF camp. It was during the heavy fighting there that Lt. Dhon Alfonso Javier, a godson of President Joseph Estrada, and five other soldiers were killed. With the success of the first two counterattacks by government forces, Defense Secretary Orlando S. Mercado and AFP chief Gen. Angelo Reyes flew to job well done. The two top officials told the 4th ID commander that President Joseph Estrada would visit Kauswagan to see for himself the ongoing military operations.
On March 21, 2000, Estrada went to the war zone in Kauswagan. It was there that he issued his order for an all-out offensive against the MILF rebels responsible for the attacks and atrocities in that town and other municipalities in the Lanao area. On his way back to Manila, the President dropped by Camp Evangelista in Cagayan de Oro to pay his last respects to the remains of his godson and the other five fallen heroes to whom he awarded the Gold Cross medal posthumously for bravery in combat.
With the marching order, Cimatu’s forces proceeded to the municipality of Delabayan, the hometown of Commander Bravo, to capture Camp John Mack. After the fall of John Mack, the next order was to hit Camp Belal, the third biggest MILF camp, located deep in the jungles of Munai, Lanao del Norte.
Anticipating stiff resistance, Cimatu formed Task Force Diamond 3 and put it under Army Col. Felipe Berroya, a battle-tested officer and a graduate of PMA class 1972. The attack on Camp Belal called for careful planning because of the rugged mountain terrain. And there was only one road to that MILF fortress. Cimatu deployed one brigade to trudge over one side. His armored assets with some troops took the road. The job of the two brigades was to clear the forested mountains of rebels and prevent them from ambushing the armored column below.
As the troops made their way across the rugged mountainous terrain, the enemy was waiting for them. The rebels put up a strong resistance to stop the advancing soldiers. But the task force was more than prepared to engage the MILF guerillas in a head-on clash.
For four days, the battle raged. When it ended, the MILF headquarters was in government hands. The guerillas fled and hid in the thickly forested mountains.
When the fighting subsided, Cimatu decided to go to Iligan City. With one Simba armored vehicle and a security detail on board two 6 x 6 trucks, he left Camp Belal early evening. The trip nearly ended in tragedy when MILF rebels opened fire on the convoy with B-40 rocket launchers and automatic gunfire. The ambush took place barely two kilometers away from a Marine base.
Staying calm under fire, Cimatu immediately ordered his men to turn off their vehicles’ lights. The shooting continued and in the dark they saw gunfire flashing from the right flank. The Simba immediately returned fire with its .50 caliber machine gun, the soldiers jumped out of their trucks and fired back. There was a heavy exchange of fire for 10 minutes, resulting in the death of two rebels.
Then the general shouted to his troops, “Let’s get out of the killing zone.” The convoy managed to make a U-turn and avoided being trapped in the killing zone just in the nick of time. Upon reaching the nearby Marine base, General Cimatu ordered an artillery bombardment of the MILF position.
Assessing the incident, he said that the MILF had sprung the ambush prematurely. “If they had waited for our convoy to pass through to the killing zone, there would have been many casualties on our part. We were lucky we did not sustain any casualty. The only damage was the shattered search light of the Simba,” he said.
Camp Belal was the sanctuary that the MILF rebels used whenever they attacked government forces in nearby areas. “That was my reason for hitting the MILF there because, if we did not do that, we would be attacked by the same group,” he said.
The rebels laced their attacks with terroristic activities, according to General Cimatu. It was the rebels, he said, who blasted the Napocor towers in Baloi, plunging practically the whole island of Mindanao into darkness in the last week of April. To check such terrorist activities, the 4th Infantry Division launched an offensive to flush out a big number of MILF guerillas in Baloi.
“It was there that MILF felt the might and firepower of the Armed Forces. All weapons available in our arsenal were used, including air assets. The rebels were so many as remnants of the group of Commander Bravo and reinforcements from Lanao del Sur poured into Baloi to help the embattled MILF forces there,” said the 4th ID commander.
One factor that favored the MILF at the outset of the battle was their control of a vital bridge. The rebels, too, had occupied a large area adjacent to the town center. General Cimatu said he told Mayor Hatefa Ali that military would attack the MILF, unless town officials could convince the rebels to leave the area to avoid a bloody confrontation.
“They could not. I had no recourse but to attack,” he said.
“We had a hard time crushing the strong rebel force that fought hammer and tongs. The fight lasted for four days and we suffered several casualties,” he recounted. “In the end, after sustaining heavy battle casualties, the rebels retreated towards Lanao del Sur.”
While the 4th ID posted victory after victory, the 6th ID’s drive had ground to a halt in Matanog where it had encountered fierce resistance from well-fortified enemy positions. There, 21 soldiers and one CAFGU member were killed on May 3, the biggest single battle loss sustained by government troops throughout the war. Morale ebbed to its lowest then, prompting General Reyes to order General Cimatu to temporarily forego his planned attack on Camp Busrah, divert his forces to the Narciso Ramos Highway in Maguindanao and link up with the 6th ID to wrest control over the vital road from the MILF.
After several days of heavy fighting, Cimatu’s forces finally cleared the highway. The victory came as a welcome equalizer to the loss of 22 troopers in Matanog and buoyed up morale. “The expectation of the people was for Task Force Diamond 3 to crush MILF resistance along the vital national highway, the general said. “And when we did it, the government breathed a sigh of relief.
“Practically, my division cleared the Narciso Ramos Highway,” General Cimatu said, noting that the planned link-up with the 6th ID did not materialize because it remained pinned down in Matanog.
During the fighting for the control of the highway, Cimatu recalled how Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Teodosio, who was in the front commanding his troops, was wounded when a B-40 rocket hit the V-300 armored vehicle he was in. The incident, he said, provoked the general to devise a way to neutralize the powerful antitank weapon which had been a big headache for the AFP armor assets.
The idea for a device to stop the B-40 rocket from blasting armored vehicles came to General Teodosio when he saw cut timber littering the way. As an innovative experiment, he placed the timber around the armored vehicle to serve as a “shock absorber“of sorts. The simple and inexpensive “armor” worked. Instantly, the armored vehicles became “invincible.”
To test their “invincibility” the armored vehicles valiantly charged without hesitation in the open. As soon as the V300s were within firing range, the rebels fired their B-40 rockets at the approaching tanks decorated like floats. The rockets hit their targets, but the deadly warhead exploded on the wooden planks without damaging the armored vehicles.
“It was an ingenuity not found in the books,” General Cimatu declared. From then on, tank commanders fearlessly drove their vehicles into the killing zones.
The victorious Task Force Diamond 3 proceeded to Daguwan, Kapatagan, Lanao del Sur, where it fought MILF suicide commandos toe-to-toe. Armed with B-40 rocket launchers, the suicide commandos were divided into three-man squads that attacked simultaneously from three sides.
“Their mission was to block the leading armored vehicle in a convoy. With a stalled vehicle in front, the rest of the convoy stops. Immediately the suicide squads appear from nowhere, go near the tanks and fire their B-40. That’s what they did to us in Daguwan,” Cimatu recalled.
To counter the menace, he said, he called in the Scout Rangers to act as snipers. They were deployed in advance on high ground along the route of the armored vehicles.
He continued: “My order was to let the armored vehicles pass through the killing zone. But the moment the MILF suicide squads appear to fire their rocket launchers, our snipers would pick them out. It was a successful strategy.
And this is not found in the infantry books we studied in school, but just a simple ingenuity we came up with during combat for our soldiers to survive.”
Cimatu pointed out that the unorthodox team-up proved to be very effective because the Rangers are excellent snipers. “They can hit their target even from a great distance. So what we did was to use the armored vehicles as bait. When the rebels took the bait, our snipers hit them,” he said.
He recalled an incident when a rebel apparently forgot he was in a shooting war. Dazzled by a formation of Air Force planes flying overhead, the guerilla got out of his fox hole and looked up. A sniper’s bullet fatally hit him in the head.
“Our snipers were perched on hill 300 meters away from the road,” he recalled adding: ”… where the road can only accommodate one vehicle at a time there is no way the infantry can be protected. We had to be resourceful and innovative by using snipers and wooden planks for our armor,” Cimatu said.
“After we cleared Langkong, I called up General Reyes to report that Langkong had fallen,” he said, adding that he told the Chief of Staff that no elements of the 6th Infantry Division with which the 4th ID was supposed to link-up were in sight.
Given that report, Reyes responded by ordering Cimatu to proceed to Matanog and help extricate government forces that were pinned down there.
“Yes Sir, I will take over,” was his snap reply.
When his troops arrived in Matanog, MILF forces under Al Haj Murad, who had been driven out from the Narciso Ramos Highway, were being repositioned. “I knew the rebels were trying to save face from the defeat they suffered in defending the Langkong area,” General Cimatu said. “The MILF declared a unilateral one-day ceasefire to evacuate their battle casualties. At that time, we had already started bombing Camp Sarmiento (the major rebel camp guarding Camp Abubakar).”
When Camp Sarmiento was overrun, the MILF resistance dwindled substantially. Meanwhile, elements of the 6th Infantry Division arrived and the link-up with Cimatu’s 4th ID finally came about.
The advance of the 6th ID bogged down when it met a strong MILF force deployed in Mount Bito, a strategic area overlooking a vast area in Maguindanao.
General Cimatu cited an instance when the attacks of Task Force Diamond 3 lost momentum. The peace accord the government and the principal separatist group, the MNLF, signed in 1996 provided for the establishment of “no fire zones”, which could not be attacked by either side. He recalled that at one point in the fighting, he observed that the MILF guerillas were using one such “no fire” zone as a sanctuary.
During an air raid, the general narrated, “we saw .50 caliber machinegun fire coming from the MNLF settlement. Cimatu said he had the machinegun nest silence, adding he lost one soldier while a number of guerillas were killed. The weapon was not recovered.
With many of the MILF camps out of the way, the general said he asked higher authorities to allow the 4th ID to attack Camp Abubakar. Instead, he said, he was ordered to take out Camp Busrah. As a good soldier, the division commander obliged. After several days of fierce combat, General Cimatu’s forces seized Busrah.
The war in summer of 2000 in Central Mindanao was now in the third week of June. Camp Abubakar remained untouched by the AFP’s counter offensive. While the government would not say when it would attack the MILF headquarters, the rebels knew that their principal fortress would now be the military’s next target.
Tension in the region of conflict rose as the MILF braced for the attack and the AFP assembled a vast array of troops, armor and firepower, including air assets, to ensure the capture of Camp Abubakar.
On June 27, five days before government forces stormed the main MILF stronghold, General Reyes spoke before the Makati Business Club. He explained to the country’s top business executives the present state of the nation’s security and the prospects of securing peace in Mindanao.
In his speech, the AFP chief of Staff did not mention that an attack on Camp Abubakar was being planned. But he dropped broad hints that the military would soon undertake a decisive action to thwart the MILF uprising.
Reyes cited this piece of advice from Kenichi Ohmae about strategy: “In business as on the battlefield, the object of strategy is to bring about the conditions most favorable to one’s own side, judging precisely the right moment to attack or withdraw and always assessing the limits of compromise correctly.”
“After reading that passage,” the Harvard educated general said, “I was comforted by the thought that a brilliant mine like Kenichi Ohmae would probably have approved of our strategic approach to the current Mindanao situation.”
Reyes also quoted author Michael Porter, who wrote that “good defense is creating a situation in which competitors, after doing… analyzing … or actually attempting a move, will conclude that the move is unwise. As with offensive moves, defense can be achieved by forcing competitors to back down after a battle. However, the most effective defense is to prevent the battle altogether. To prevent a move, it is necessary that competitors expect retaliation with a high degree of certainty and believe that the retaliation will be effective. Once a competitor’s move has occurred, the denial of an adequate base for the competitor to meet its goals, coupled with the expectation that this state of affairs will continue, can cause the competitor to withdraw.”
Reyes discussed extensively the MILF threat to carve out an independent Islamic state in Mindanao. He said the MILF has a five-phase, 20-year program that started in 1981.
He cited AFP records showing that at the end of 1999, the rebel strength was placed at 15,690 men, with 11,280 firearms; that from January 1, 2000 to June 27, 2000, the MILF launched 144 terrorist activities, the most blatant of which were: the MILF roadblocks on the Talayan-Shariff Aguak Highway on January 8; occupation of the Talayan town hall on January 17; the MILF attack in Carmen, North Cotabato; spate of bombings in Zamboanga del Norte, Ozamiz City and Cotabato City; establishment of check-points along the Narciso Ramos National Highway from February 20 to 29; and the series of attacks on several municipalities in the Lanao provinces from March 15 to 17.
To counter the MILF threat, General Reyes said the AFP deployed three Infantry Divisions, 13 Infantry Brigades, three Marine Brigades, four Ground Task Forces, two Naval Task Forces, two Engineer Brigades, one PAF Composite Tactical Wing and 24,000 CAFGU auxiliaries.
On July 2, government forces started pounding Camp Abubakar. Warplanes bombed the MILF stronghold, while artillery fire pulverized the perimeter defenses.
The AFP used two divisions in the attack. The 4th ID under Major General Cimatu advanced towards Camp Abubakar taking the high ground, while the 6th ID under Maj. Gen. Gregorio Camiling was assigned to take the low ground. The searing air and ground assault resulted in the capture of Camp Abubakar after a week of heavy fighting.
On July 9, President Estrada flew to Camp Abubakar to raise the Philippine flag over the sprawling territory the MILF had claimed as their own since 1995.
A day before the President arrived, a heart-stirring drama unfolded when a seriously wounded MILF rebel was given a blood transfusion right then and there by military doctors. In gesture of love and unity, General Teodosio volunteered to donate his blood to the badly wounded MILF rebel.
A similar act of brotherhood happened in 1977 when a Muslim guerilla also donated his blood to a wounded Army soldier.
Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Teodosio, Commander of the First Marine Brigade, was awarded two Gold Cross Medals for his leadership in combat. Gen. Roy Cimatu a.k.a. General Pacman, earned his second star, a well-deserved promotion to the rank of major general, and the Distinguished Conduct Star, for his splendid combat record in driving the rebels out of their encampments.
As DENR secretary, Cimatu has a gargantuan task to do in stopping once and for all the illegal mining and logging, and against poachers of the country’s teeming fishing industry.
Will he be successful in his crusade to preserve the country's natural resources?
In all likelihood and sincerity, he most likely will. (PNA)