The assassination of Benigno Aquino was probably planned by Philippine military intelligence operatives, two well-placed military officers have told this correspondent.
These same Filipino officers also say that members of the Philippine armed forces have interviewed witnesses who claim that Aquino, the country's main opposition leader, was shot by one of the soldiers escorting him off the plane at Manila airport Aug. 21.
The government claims that a lone gunman, Rolando Galman, killed Aquino on the former senator's return from three years of self-exile in the United States.
The officers, who asked that their rank and names not be revealed, added that the killing was likely to have been planned and carried out with the knowledge of the armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Fabian Ver, a close confidant of President Ferdinand Marcos.
''Ver might not have known,'' one of the officers said, stressing the word ''might.'' ''But he more likely did.''
Asked why General Ver should have countenanced the assassination, one of the officers replied simply, ''Ver's loyalty to the President is total.''
General Ver, a relative of President Marcos and from the same hometown, has spent much of his career in intelligence work. In addition to being the Philippines' top military officer, he is currently also director general of the National Intelligence and Security Authority, and his official biography describes him as the country's ''foremost authority on intelligence and security.''
The two Filipino officers have intimate knowledge both of the workings of military intelligence and the armed forces general headquarters. Although their allegations do not provide conclusive evidence of official complicity in the killing, this appears to be the first time that military officers have voiced such suspicions. This in turn indicates that the turmoil and dissent prevalent in civilian society here since the murder of Aquino have begun to spread to the armed forces.
Attempts to obtain interviews with President Marcos and his wife, Imelda, were unsuccessful. A spokesman for General Ver said he would not be available for interviews until he had appeared before the Aquino assassination fact-finding board.
The two officers say that the assassination was probably planned by ''eager-beaver colonels trying to ingratiate themselves with the President.''
In particular, the officers point out that Col. Rolando Abadilla, chief of the Military Intelligence and Security Group of ''Metrocom'' - the Philippine Constabulary's Metropolitan Command - was present at the airport immediately after the Aquino killing.
''That man is totally ruthless,'' said one of the officers. ''He's very dangerous.''
Colonel Abadilla also has close links with another colonel, Air Force Lt. Col. Arturo Custodio, who in turn is connected to Rolando Galman, the small-time gangster alleged by the government to have shot Aquino before being himself gunned down by security forces at the airport.
Last week Colonel Custodio testified to the Aquino assassination fact-finding board about his lengthy acquaintance with Galman, whom he said he met in 1979 and who had visited Custodio's house ''four or five times.'' And on Nov. 14, Custodio's brother and legal adviser, Benito, also a military officer, told this correspondent that Arturo Custodio and Abadilla had been together at the Philippine Military Academy and had kept in touch ever since.
Benito Custodio added that Abadilla had served under their elder brother, Gen. Vicente Custodio, who had been deputy commander at Metrocom in the early 1970s.
''My brother has many friends in the intelligence,'' Benito Custodio said of Arturo. He added that the two armed escorts who had accompanied his brother to last week's fact-finding hearing, and who had described themselves as civilian friends of Arturo, were in fact intelligence operatives, old friends of Arturo.
Abadilla - also a native of President Marcos's home province of Ilocos - has a reputation for extreme toughness. In 1968, when he was a second lieutenant, he was court-martialed in connection with the massacre of a number of Muslim soldiers undergoing secret military training on the island of Corregidor. He was defended at the court-martial by a Maj. Prospero Olivas and was acquitted.
Today, Colonel Abadilla is one of the principal aides to the same Prospero Olivas, now a major general. General Olivas is the commander of Metrocom - and the person assigned to investigate the assassination of Aquino.
General Olivas still maintains that Rolando Galman was Aquino's assassin. The general's second progress report on his investigation into the murder, dated Sept. 20, claims that ''at least six persons,'' all of them military men, saw Galman shoot Aquino.
The two military officers interviewed by this writer, however, say the Olivas version is ''all wrong.'' The officers say that civilian witnesses to the killing, members of the airport ground staff, were interviewed by unspecified units of the armed forces shortly after the killing.
One of the officers expressed his opinion that, ''The (civilian) witnesses' accounts indicate that one of Aquino's military escorts shot him as he went down the steps to the tarmac.''
All three of the soldiers who escorted Aquino from the China Airlines plane were members of the Aviation Security Command (Avsecom), a composite unit drawn from different elements of the Philippine armed forces.
(Aquino was killed by a single shot in the head which entered behind the left ear and traveled downward, exiting at the chin. General Olivas's Sept. 20 written report names Aquino's three escorts as Tech. Sgt. Claro Lat and Sgt. Arnulfo de Mesa, both of the Air Force; and Constable 1st Class Rogelio Moreno of the Philippine Constabulary. The report says Sergeant Lat was on Aquino's right as he went down the steps, Constable Moreno was behind him, and Sergeant de Mesa was to the left rear of Aquino. De Mesa is one of the six witnesses mentioned who allegedly saw Galman shoot Aquino.)
The officers said that the civilian witnesses also told their interviewers that Galman was not hiding behind the steps leading from the passenger disembarkation tunnel to the tarmac, as General Olivas has claimed. Instead, the civilian witnesses said he was pushed, seemingly lifeless, from the Avsecom bulletproof van that was supposed to be used to take Aquino into custody.
''The (Aquino) killing was really clumsy, a brainless act,'' one of the officers said. ''But parts of it were quite professional. For example, the foreign TV videotapes of Aquino's last minutes show one of the escorts casually putting his hand on Aquino's waist. He was obviously checking for body protection.''
Aquino had put on a bulletproof vest shortly before the plane touched down at Manila.
''When they found the vest, they shot him in the head,'' the officer said.
The officers expressed little hope that General Olivas's investigation would yield any serious results. They noted that the general was himself partly responsible for security at the airport, and suggested that the general had been chosen to investigate the killing mainly because he ''enjoys the confidence of his superiors'' in the armed forces and the presidential palace.
Other sources also say that they have eyewitnesses' testimony pointing to one of the Avsecom escorts as the killer.
One of the lawyers assigned to the first, short-lived commission investigating the murder says he has spoken to two people who saw an apparently lifeless Galman being pushed from the Avsecom van, and Mr. Aquino crumpling to the ground as he walked with his three escorts down the steps to the tarmac.
The lawyer says that one of his witnesses is ''backing out of his story,'' because he is afraid. He says the other witness is still willing to testify. The lawyer adds, however, that in order to protect the witness he would not produce him until President Marcos resigns. This tactic also appears to be a method of increasing pressure on Marcos to step down.
The same lawyer says that the autopsy on Rolando Galman, presented to the first commission but so far unpublished, showed certain inconsistencies.
The lawyer says the medical report stated that 16 bullets had been recovered from Galman's corpse. Most had entered from the front - press photographs taken immediately after the Aquino murder show an Avsecom trooper firing his carbine repeatedly into Galman's prostrate body, which was then left lying face up on the tarmac for several hours after the killing.
Four bullets, however, had entered from behind: one in the back of the head and three in the back. The lawyer expressed some surprise that the National Bureau of Investigation's medical examining officer had told the board that he was unable to identify the caliber of the bullets found in Galman's corpse.
The lawyer says, however, that he was not allowed to cross-examine the government's medical examiner during the commission hearings, and was thus unable to clarify these points.