Reports of Aquino panel implicate Philippine military

The assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. was the work of a military conspiracy , concludes the panel investigating last year's slaying of the Philippine opposition leader.

The panel rejects the thesis put forward by the military that the murder of President Marcos's leading opponent was part of a plot by the Philippine Communists.

The panel, however, disagreed over who in the military was responsible.

According to Reuters, the report of four of the five panel members implicated Armed Forces Chief of Staff Fabian Ver, one of President Ferdinand Marcos's closest aides, as a conspirator. Two other generals and 22 other military men were also implicated.

The chairwoman, retired Justice Corazon Juliano Agrava, however, issued a separate report earlier Tuesday. This identified the conspirators as Brig. Gen. Luther Custodio, head of the Aviation Security Command, the unit in charge of airport security, and six military men who escorted Senator Aquino from his plane at Manila International Airport on Aug. 21, 1983.

Justice Agrava's report says that Aquino was killed by a single bullet and that one of four escorts fired the shot. Two escorts were too close to have done so.

Agrava's report is destined to provoke controversy - not because it pointed to the military as the killers, but because it failed to name General Ver.

President Marcos, without waiting for the later report from the other four board members, announced that the conspirators accused in the Agrava report would be tried before a civilian court. He ordered his justice minister to proceed ''without letting a day pass.''

The speed of the government's response Tuesday suggested something bordering on relief that General Ver was not named in the Agrava findings. The government's strategy - or at least the strategy of the nonmilitary part of the government - seemed to be to save Ver at all costs.

An indictment of Ver would be tantamount to an indictment of the President. Ver has long been the President's alter ego and, as even members of the Ver family say, would do nothing without Marcos's knowledge.

The President is thought to argue that Ver is indispensable to him - not least because Ver and his three officer sons play a major role in assuring the safety of the Marcos family. But other important political forces, including senior pro-government politicians and, it is believed, the United States, have argued the opposite: If the Marcos government is to survive, Ver must be sacrificed.

Agrava's report provides a major boost to the ''save Ver'' movement. The immediate public reaction seems to be dissatisfaction - even speculation by many Filipinos that Agrava made some sort of deal with the government.

Agrava's decision to break with her four colleagues will provide the government with room to maneuver in defending Ver and thus the administration. They will be able to point to the board's inability to achieve unanimity on the most crucial aspect of the conspiracy.

And, by moving ahead with alacrity to act on the basis of the chairwoman's individual report, they open up the prospect of endless legal wrangling over which report constitutes the basis for prosecution.

Agrava presented her report to President Marcos Tuesday afternoon at a short, apparently cordial meeting at the presidential palace, the Malacanang. After a 20-minute closed-door session with the President, she thanked Marcos in front of TV cameras and told him, ''I hope we have served you and the people.''

Failure to go higher in the military chain of command than General Custodio in assigning blame will probably be greeted with skepticism.

Soon after the assassination, a senior US official, asked if General Custodio would be an appropriately senior scapegoat for the killing, replied with some impatience, ''Nobody believes Custodio would have done a thing like this on his own.''

It can also be argued that the Ver-Custodio relationship is not dissimilar to that between Ver and Marcos.

A pilot by training, Custodio has long been associated with intelligence work and the elite Presidential Security Command. In the late '70s, Custodio was the head of National Intelligence and Security Agency for a region of the Philippines. General Ver is director of the agency. He then became Presidential Security Command chief of staff and chief of intelligence - positions currently filled by Col. Irwin Ver, the general's second son.

While the top echelons of government try to save Ver, the military establishment is taking a harder line. On several occasions recently they have attacked the methods used by the board to gather evidence and encourage witnesses to speak.

Last week the military announced that one witness, Celso Loterina, had retracted earlier testimony that indicated strongly that Aquino had been shot on the stairs. Mr. Loterina later claimed in an interview on the government TV station that he had been induced to make his testimony because board staff members had promised to help him settle in the US.

On Monday, Custodio himself pursued this line at press conference at Aviation Security Command (Avsecom) headquarters. This time he claimed that an Avsecom trooper had been offered similar inducements.

Custodio implied that other witnessess may have been subject to similar pressures, intended to ''bring the armed forces down.''

The general also said that Avsecom morale had declined sharply since the allegations of a military conspiracy had surfaced. The men were depressed, he said. ''But we also know how to get angry.'' Such comments have given rise to fears of a military coup. On Tuesday, Col. Irwin Ver denied plans for a coup.

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