6:00AM–Early morning, government forces took over and occupied the ARMM facilities and other buildings and premises in Maguindanao province. Armed elements loyal to the Ampatuans were taken by surprise and gave up their firearms without resistance.
I was nervous a bit but confident. The “what if” scenarios kept popping up in my mind. I motored to the 601stbrigade for the final briefings. The choppers would pick me up from there. Gen Ferrer and I watched as more newly arrived troops were jumping off towards designated areas.
9:00AM – I was informed that something went wrong with the Huey helicopters coming from Cotabato . The Davao choppers were instead dispatched but would not be able to arrive by 10AM.
9:55AM – I got a call from Col Geslani whom we tasked to liaison with the Ampatuans that they were requesting for a little time as they were waiting for their lawyer who was still on the road to arrive. That was a break I needed. The 2 choppers arrived. We discussed with the pilot and crew contingencies and procedures.
10:45AM, we were ready to jump off upon cue from Col Geslani. It would be a short 35 minute hop from the brigade to Shariff Aguak. My staff Cecil said she’s getting nervous but insisted on joining. My assistant, Yo was busy texting. But wait, another problem suddenly cropped up. As we were boarding, one the 2 PNP officers tasked to escort the suspect said they could not use the handcuff on Ampatuan as the KEY WAS MISSING! What about the other handcuff with your buddy, I asked. “Ganon din po sir”, he replied. “Sh_t!” I almost fell from my seat!.(”Sarap sapakin!”) But there was no more time. We then agreed that he would be strapped with the seat belt and the policemen would firmly clasp the buckles to prevent any unexpected situation while airborne. (When I was asked later by reporters why Ampatuan was not handcuffed, I had a ready curt answer with a straight face: “He is adequately restrained!”. Sec Agnes promptly responded with the same line when she was asked upon landing in Manila. )
11:20AM Two Hueys landed on the Maguindanao province capitol grounds. The Huey engines were not shut off as agreed in case a sudden exit maneuver was necessary. I waited for 20 minutes on the ground. I was getting worried. Finally, I saw my staff Ollie with his thumbs up sign. Col Geslani signalled, they were on their way. My “what if” scare disappeared. The capitol gates opened. The Ampatuan family arrived on board vehicles from another location nearby. Gov Zaldy clasping my hand said: “Ipaubaya ni amah si Datu Unsay sayo” and turned over Datu Unsay to me. We boarded the aircraft with Atty. Cynthia , insisting she had to ride with him.
11:40AM, Helis took off enroute Gen Santos City where Sec. Agnes and her crew were waiting for an inquest proceeding. But again something happened. About a few minutes airborne and while still climbing and gaining altitude, I first noticed some flapping sound outside. I thought, maybe some loose parts of the chopper. The noise kept coming, intermittent. I looked down and maybe I saw flashes but I was not sure. Suddenly the Huey banked sharply to the right and simultaneously, several short bursts from our two Huey gunners at the back. The bursts startled all of us. The evasive maneuver by the pilot also jarred us. All of us kept our heads low as the Huey steeply climbed. My staff Jerry and Col Mac who were seated beside the open Huey doors ducked. The soldier at the back shouted, “ground fire, sir”. We still climbed. The flapping sound from outside could not be heard anymore. The gunners later told me ground fire sounded like flapping from the air.
The evasive action and the machinegun bursts were SOP. At 2,000 feet altitude, we cruised. That’s when I saw on the Huey floor an empty shell from the bursts of the M-60 machinegun on board.
I picked up the empty shell, then pocketed it for good luck.
At the Gensan airport, I called the Boss: “Mission accomplished, Mrs. President.”