High-ranking Philippine air force officers had orders to intercept the civilian airliner bringing opposition leader Benigno Aquino to Manila on the day he was killed, according to sworn affidavits from U.S. Air Force personnel made public by the State Department yesterday.
The evidence of the "highly unusual" activity by the Philippine air force was gathered by the State Department at Philippine government request in connection with the trial of 26 people, including Armed Forces Chief of Staff Fabian C. Ver, accused of a military conspiracy in Aquino's killing.
Aquino was shot as he stepped off a China Air Lines commercial jetliner on Aug. 21, 1983.
After the U.S. affidavits were provided, however, the chief Philippine prosecutor, Bernardo P. Fernandez, announced that they would not be used in court.
The prosecutor said that the affidavits were "irrelevant and immaterial."
Earlier, the commander of the Philippine air force, Maj. Gen. Vincente Piccio, had called the report of the attempted interception of Aquino's plane "just a sensationalized barracks story of the usual type bandied about in air force operations rooms."
A five-page State Department statement made public yesterday, along with the affidavits of six U.S. Air Force personnel and portions of a classified U.S. Air Force log book, was critical of Fernandez for failing to use the information.
The State Department called his criticisms of the affidavits as having not been properly authenticated "wholly without foundation" and inexplicable.
Making public the evidence and the U.S. unhappiness about its handling is an implicit criticism of the Aquino investigation on the part of the Reagan administration.
State Department officials said none of the Philippine air force officials involved has been produced as witnesses in the conspiracy trial.
The affidavits are based on what happened on the morning of Aug. 21, 1983, in the Air Defense Direction Center at Wallace Air Station in the Philippines, jointly used by the U.S. and Philippine commands.
Capt. Marion A. Black, senior director of the U.S. air control crew on duty, said a Major Farolan, the Philippine commander of the air station, accompanied by aides, asked to use radar scopes and radio frequencies for "internal Philippine air force business."
Black quoted Farolan as telling him that "the Philippine air force was going to launch two F5s to intercept a civilian aircraft and either turn it back to its origin or escort it to Basa Air Base in the Philippines for landing."
Black said he learned later that Aquino was on this plane.
Essentially the same information was reported by Sgt. Wendall A. Austin, who was on duty that day.
Austin said that two Philippine Air Force F5s had scrambled over the South China Sea, but evidently did not locate the airliner.
U.S. personnel said they were told that the intercept had been ordered by "Arrow," which is the military designation for the Philippines air defense control headquarters at Manila.
Sgt. David B. Hampton, who was on duty at the operations room there, quoted a Colonel Kapawan, chief of the center, as saying that the operations had been intended to intercept Aquino's plane.
Excerpts from the U.S. Air Force log book at the air station describe the incident. Beside a key entry an unidentified person later wrote the name "Aquino."
The Philippine government claimed that a hired gunman was responsible, but the court is investigating the possibility of a high-level military conspiracy.