Philippine general sticks with official version of Aquino killing

Gen. Fabian Ver, chief of staff of the Philippine armed forces, has stuck firmly to the government version of the killing of Benigno Aquino Jr. Mr. Aquino, a former senator and opposition leader, was shot at Manila International Airport when he returned from the United States last Aug. 21.

General Ver is one of President Ferdinand Marcos's closest confidants. He has so far appeared twice before the Fact-Finding Board investigating the Aquino assassination: on Friday, April 6 and Tuesday, April 10. He will probably do so again on April 23.

General Ver said the government had received hazy reports from a number of intelligence sources of a threat against Mr. Aquino's life, but no details.

He surmised that the most likely killers came from one of three sources: opposition figures who did not want to surrender their authority to Aquino; the communist underground; or relatives of former Aquino associates whom Mr. Aquino allegedly had murdered.

The communists were the most likely suspects, Ver said. ''It could have been a higher objective of the communists to destabilize the government,'' he told the board. Echoing the comments made by government officials just after the murder, Ver said the security measures were adequate, but the alleged killer, Rolando Galman, was on a suicide mission.

The murder, Ver told the board, had caused problems for the government. The government, he said, had no interest in killing Aquino, but it had to take him into custody, as he was under sentence of death. He had been charged with subversion and condemned to death in 1977.

The execution was deferred, but in April 1982 a military commission confirmed the sentence. Only in July 1983, a month before Aquino returned, was the commission's order forwarded by the Defense Ministry to the President, Ver said.

Earlier this year Ver told the Manila newspaper Business Day that, after the death sentence was passed, ''there was no more motive'' for the government to kill Aquino. ''I knew he was dead legally,'' the paper quotes Ver as saying.

In his April 6 testimony, the general denied that the government was monitoring Aquino's return. He said that officials had received reports of his route from the Philippine Embassy in Singapore (which correctly indicated that Aquino was going to Taipei and then to Manila). But Ver said he preferred to believe opposition leader Salvador Laurel, who told the authorities that Aquino was arriving from Tokyo.

Both senior diplomats and Philippine government officials, have expressed deep skepticism about the government version of the killing. Some have expressed the opinion that General Ver was involved.

Immediately after the assassination, the US Embassy seemed to share the government's view. The communist underground, embassy officials told journalists , stood to benefit most from the murder. So they were the most likely suspects.

This view changed fast. ''Circumstantial evidence,'' an embassy source said a few months after the assassination, ''has already cast a fair amount of shadow on the official version.''

About the same time, a prominent Western diplomat was asked about the widely mentioned possibility that a senior officer, such as Brig. Gen. Luther Custodio - commander of the Aviation Security Command (Avsecom) entrusted with Aquino's security at the airport - was involved in the killing.

''No one I've spoken to feels Custodio would have acted on his own,'' he said.

Doubts about the government's story extend to the Cabinet. Last November a senior Cabinet minister with ill-concealed presidential ambitions discussed the killing with this writer.

The minister claims good relations with the military. When asked how they had reacted to the killing, he replied, ''Some feel their uniforms have been dishonored.''

Other military officers have been more explicit. Late last year, some told this correspondent they suspected that the murder was the work of military intelligence - ''eager-beaver colonels'' trying to ingratiate themselves with their superiors. General Ver ''probably'' knew about the planned assassination, the officers said.

About the same time, a very influential figure in Philippine public life, a longtime Marcos loyalist, told journalists in blunt, crude terms of his belief that General Ver was involved. How will the affair end, he was asked. He joined together two fingers of his right hand to form a make-believe gun. ''Bang, bang, '' he replied.

On March 1, the children of Rolando Galman told the Fact-Finding Board that their mother had been taken from home on Jan. 29, and that she told them she was being taken to see General Ver.

The general has vehemently denied this. The board president, Justice Corazon Agrava, describes the accusation as ''double hearsay.'' It is also unlikely that other claims, such as the officers' allegations, would be considered admissible evidence in a court of law.

For its part, the Aquino family has never hidden its belief that the former senator was killed on the orders of the highest levels of government.

Corazon Aquino, the widow of the murdered politician, says that in either June or July of last year someone called on Aquino's mother with a warning. The caller knew General Ver, Mrs. Aquino says. Ver, according to the caller, had said that Aquino would be shot as he arrived at Manila airport. The warning was passed along to her husband, Mrs. Aquino says, but it was treated as a bluff.

Aquino's

brother, Agapito (Butz), claims to have spoken to a number of alleged witnesses. They all agree, he says, that Galman was not the killer, that his brother was shot on the stairs by the military escorts.

Butz Aquino also says that Air Force officers saw Galman eating at a canteen in Villamor air base - Avsecom headquarters - several days before the assassination. (The Galman children say they last saw their father on Aug. 17, four days before the assassination.)

Neither of the Aquinos, however, encourage their witnesses to testify since they cannot guarantee their safety. And Butz Aquino adds he still has doubts about a board that was ''appointed by the main suspect.'' The board was created by presidential decree.

Aquino's four escorts are due to reappear before the board soon. Since their first testimony, several civilian witnesses have given testimony either implying or directly stating that Aquino was shot on the stairs. If true, this would implicate the escorts.

It is perhaps worth noting the type of gun with which Galman is said to have killed Aquino, a Magnum .357. A member of Avsecom told this writer that Magnums were regularly issued to them.

If suspicion does shift to the escorts, several officers will become key figures in the investigation. Second Lt. Jesus Castro, who led the group on Aquino's plane, held back the passengers, many of them journalists, who tried to follow Aquino. Seconds later Aquino was shot dead.

General Custodio has been Avsecom commander since late 1982. Before that he was assistant chief of staff in charge of intelligence and chief of staff in the Presidential Security Command. This unit, entrusted with the protection of the Marcoses, is commanded by General Ver.

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