Tension gripped Zamboanga City early Monday as Moro National Liberation Front members attacked several coastal villages. As of this posting, there's a standoff between government troops and the rebels. Video by INQUIRER.net…

ZAMBOANGA, SEPTEMBER 16, 2013 (INQUIRER) Government troops were locked in a standoff with hundreds of Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas who killed six people and took civilians as hostages in Zamboanga City on Monday in a bid to derail peace talks.

Armored troops surrounded the southern port of the city after between 200 and 300 Moro National Liberation Front gunmen entered six coastal villages on its outskirts before dawn, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said.

The number of people held hostage was unclear. Police reported that 20 individuals were seized and used as human shields by the MNLF fighters as they barged into Sta. Catalina village, but the military said at least 300 persons were taken as hostages by the guerrillas in three villages.

According to Zagala, there were 230 persons held hostage in Sta. Catalina, 50 in Sta. Barbara and 20 in Talon-Talon as of 3:45p.m.

Police said that only 87 people and not 200 were “trapped” in Sta. Catalina village due to the fighting and “cannot be categorized as hostages,” but later admitted the civilians were indeed seized by MNLF fighters.

“Mga 87 na yan, hindi na 200 (87 and no longer 200),” police Chief Inspector Ariel Huesca, Region IX police spokesman, said in a text message to INQUIRER.net at 5:08 p.m.

The fighting erupted after soldiers backed by tanks blocked the MNLF guerrillas — armed by assault rifles — from marching into Zamboanga city to raise their flag at city hall, Zagala said.

“They were trying to march [towards] the city hall and we cannot allow that,” he told a news conference in Manila, adding that two gunmen were arrested.

Zamboanga City Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said in a statement that since the start of the crisis at around 4:30 a.m. Monday, the Zamboanga City police reported that six people had been killed —one policeman, one navy man and four civilians–while 24 others had been wounded in the course of the encounter between government troops and the rebels. More casualties were reported on the enemy side.

Salazar said 20 of the hostages are in Barangay (village) Sta. Catalina, while over 200 were being held captive in Barangay Kasanyangan.

“We are in close coordination with our police and military authorities and everything is being done to solve the crisis the soonest possible time with minimal damage to lives and properties,” she said.

Aside from Sta. Catalina and Kasanyangan, the other villages affected by the MNLF attack were Sta. Barbara, Talon-Talon, and Mampang.

Displaced persons were estimated at 2,500 and the number is “still increasing” in Zamboanga City Grandstand and Tetuan village as of 3 p.m., according to the Zamboanga City government.

President Benigno Aquino III’s government denounced the deadly attack, which analysts said was designed to sabotage peace talks aimed at ending a 42-year-old rebellion that has claimed 150,000 lives.

“The authorities are responding to the situation in a manner that will reduce the risk to innocent civilians and restore peace and order to Zamboanga City at the soonest possible time,” Aquino spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a statement.

Loud explosions could be heard around the former colonial Spanish port of nearly one million people.

Streets were deserted and shops, schools and government offices as well as the airport were shut down.

In this handout photo released by the Philippine Information Agency Region IX shows Philippine military troops come down from a military truck as they secure an area in Zamboanga city, southern Philippines, Monday Sept. 9, 2013. A Philippine navy patrol clashed early Monday with suspected members of the Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas aboard several boats, before the rebels stormed a coastal community and took about a dozen hostages, officials said. AP

Heavily armed private security personnel as well as troops guarded the airport, hotels, banks and other buildings, said an AFP reporter on the ground.

“We can still hear sporadic gunshots. We don’t know if this is from the government forces or from the MNLF,” city hall employee Ramon Bucoy said.

Footage on television showed armored personnel carriers speeding around empty streets at dawn, with road blocks also prominent.

The attack came as the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front prepared to resume talks aimed at crafting a political settlement to be signed before Aquino leaves office in 2016.

After a preliminary peace deal was signed last year, the remaining negotiations aim to flesh out the power-sharing terms between the national government and the MILF that is expected to head a new autonomous government, and the disarmament of its 12,000 guerrillas.

Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Manila security think-tank Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence, and Terrorism Research, which has extensively covered the conflict, said the action was likely designed to sabotage the peace talks.

“(MNLF leader Nur) Misuari’s motive is to convey a message… (that) the signing of the peace agreement between the government and the MILF will no longer guarantee the end of war”.

He added: “The fear now is Misuari could create one united front along with other threat groups against the Philippines.”
Misuari had made a renewed call last month for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

“To the Philippine government, I think our message is already quite clear — that we don’t like to be part of the Philippines anymore,” Misuari said in his message last month, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.

He called on his forces to “surround and secure all military, police and all other installations, airports, seaports and all other vital government and private institutions”.

The MNLF signed a peace deal in 1996, dropping its bid for independence and settling for autonomy, although its followers had not totally disarmed.

The government later said the agreement was a “failed experiment” with many areas remaining in deep poverty.

Top aide of Misuari sighted

A known follower of Misuari was sighted in a village in Zamboanga City on Monday, according to the military.
Ustadz Habier Malik, a top aide of the Misuari faction, was seen in the village of Sta. Catalina, military spokesman Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan said.

“He was sighted in the area. We don’t want to speculate at the specifics on this but we are continuously assessing if there is direct intervention on this mater. But let me say that this is the group pf the Misuari faction of the MNLF,” he told reporters at a press briefing.

There are 230 hostages held in Sta. Catalina, a military report said.

In 2007, Malik also held hostage a Marine general and a government peace team for two days in Jolo.

He held hostage then Major General Ben Dolorfino in Panamao town and his team after they demanded more benefits under the 1996 peace accord.

Malik was also linked to the deaths of two US soldiers and a Filipino soldier in a landmine blast in Sulu’s Indanan town in 2009.

Based on military records, he has three warrants of arrest: frustrated murder, murder and attempted murder.
It is not the first time Misuari has attacked Zamboanga.

In 2001, he and his followers took dozens of hostages and left many more dead in Zamboanga and in nearby Jolo island, his home base.

The MNLF later freed all the hostages after several days, in exchange for free passage out of the city as Misuari fled to Malaysia, where he was arrested and deported.

He was held in a police camp near Manila until 2008, when the government dropped all charges against him. With reports from and Agence France Presse and Associated Press

10 MNLF rebels in Zamboanga attack nabbed By Jamie Elona

Combat police forces get into position to confront Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels in downtown Zamboanga City in the Philippines on September 9, 2013. AFP PHOTO / STR

MANILA, Philippines – Ten suspected members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) allegedly involved in the clash with government troops in Zamboanga City early Monday have been arrested, police said.

Police Chief Inspector Ariel Huesca, Region IX police spokesman, said five “unarmed” rebels were arrested at around 8:30 a.m. – some of them were wearing MNLF uniforms during the arrest while the others had their uniforms inside their bags.

Asked if they were still considered as among those involved in the firefight even if they were unarmed when arrested, Huesca said he could not ascertain their exact involvement, but said that cases will be filed against them if there would be witnesses who would identify them as among the attackers.

The five others, on the other hand, were arrested Sunday evening after they were seen in military uniforms and were carrying unlicensed firearms.

“They introduced themselves as MNLF members,” Huesca said.

As of posting, Huesca said roughly 20 civilians were still being held hostage by the rebels inside Barangay (village) Sta. Catalina where the rebels were contained by authorities.

They used the civilians as “human shield,” he said.

“Hindi naman talaga bawal [ang MNLF sa Zamboanga City]. Nagiging bawal pag nagdala sila ng baril at nag suot sila ng uniform. Wala namang bawal as long as lahat ng gagawin mo ay in accordance with existing laws,” Huesca said.


Zamboanga crisis: Nur men surrounded By Jaime Laude (The Philippine Star) | Updated September 11, 2013 - 12:00am 0 1 googleplus0 0


MANILA, Philippines -Even as dozens of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters have remained holed up in some Zamboanga City towns with their hostages, government troopers are holding off offensive operations to give way to negotiations and prevent further bloodshed.

This was according to Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman, who said security forces have surrounded some 180 MNLF fighters entrenched in barangays Sta. Catalina, Talon-Talon and Sta. Barbara.

“At the moment the AFP is standing down to pave the way for possible negotiation. This is being done by the crisis monitoring committee. We want to assure everyone that we are doing whatever we can to ensure that there will be a peaceful resolution to the crisis,” Zagala said.

Intelligence reports showed that in Barangay Talon-Talon, a certain commander Ugong and 30 followers were holding 20 civilian hostages.

Another group of around 18 MNLF gunmen led by a certain Asahim Hussein was reportedly providing support to Ugong’s group.

In Barangay Sta. Barbara, some 80 to 90 gunmen led by Sulu-based MNLF commander Habier Malik were holed up with 20 civilian hostages.

Malik’s group was reportedly being backed up by another band of 30 rebels holding 80 civilian hostages.

In the nearby barangay Sta. Catalina, MNLF leader Ismael Dasta and 80 men were keeping 36 hostages.

“These coastal villages fronting Basilan are known enclaves of MNLF integrees and their families. The number of the MNLF fighters there could easily increase to more than a thousand if attacked by ground troops,” a former Zamboanga-based senior intelligence officer who declined to be named said. The villages are thickly populated where unlicensed firearms – many high-powered – are in abundance, he said.

“Most of the residents in these villages, if not MNLF integrees, are close relatives. A military option to resolve the two-day standoff would be bloody. The military and police leadership in Zamboanga should know this,” he said.

He said the only solution to the standoff is to “allow the MNLF rebels a peaceful withdrawal from these areas.”

An assault, he added, would only lead to an escalation of the crisis.

Philippine Navy spokesman Lt. Commander Gregory Fabic said four multi-purpose attack craft, two patrol gunboats and a diesel fast boat had been deployed along Zamboanga’s coastlines to conduct patrols.

Capt. Michael Mortel of the Marines’ Jolo-based 2nd Infantry Brigade said MNLF forces were being deployed to help their trapped comrades.

“We are ready to hold them from proceeding to Jolo. If they will do so, we will disarm them; if they shoot at us, we will have no option but to defend our position,” he said.

‘Defensive posture’

MNLF spokesman Emmanuel Fontanilla stressed a military offensive would only worsen the situation and proposed that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the United Nations (UN) be allowed to intervene.

“Our forces will stay where they are. They are on a defensive posture,” he told radio dzMM.

He said that instead of sending the military to fight the rebels, the government should follow the terms of the 1996 treaty with the Muslim group by bringing the rebels’ grievances to a mediation committee chaired by the OIC.

The MNLF rebels seized scores more hostages and traded gunfire with troops yesterday, the second day of the crisis.

The rebels, followers of MNLF founding chairman Nur Misuari, seized 20 hostages at the start of the crisis, but Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said they were now holding 170 people in the villages where they are holed up.

The initial attack killed four people and left 14 injured, the mayor told reporters, reducing the toll from Monday when she said there were six dead and 24 wounded, and giving no explanation for the revision.

“What we are seeing is that they are being used as human shields,” Salazar said in an interview with ABS-CBN television.

“We are working for the release of the hostages and a peaceful resolution of this problem,” she added.

About 1,500 elite troops backed by a smaller number of police have blocked off the area to hold the gunmen in place and prevent the arrival of potential rebel reinforcements, Zagala said.

“At the moment, our priority is the safety and security of the hostages and the city,” Zagala said, adding that yesterday’s firefight had died down and there were no further casualties.

“If the time comes to change the mission, we will adjust accordingly,” he said without elaborating.

The followers of Misuari poured into the fishing villages from the sea on Monday before mounting an assault on Zamboanga, causing panic in the city of nearly one million people.

Misuari, who could not be reached for comment, has declared “independence” for a large part of Mindanao and called on his followers to besiege government installations.

Negotiators were now trying to convince the gunmen to release the hostages, said Muktar Muarip, a local Muslim community leader in talks with the rebels.

He said the gunmen had released four women and a child in the early hours of Tuesday, but that they were holding dozens of others inside mosques.

“They forced us to go with them last night, saying they did not know the way,” one of the released women, Merceditas Asinon, told reporters after she was freed unharmed before dawn.

One of the hostages was a Roman Catholic priest, but it was not immediately clear which group was holding him.

Archdiocese of Zamboanga administrator Monsignor Chris Manongas said Monsignor Arnold dela Serna, vicar-general of the Archdiocese, narrowly escaped the rebels. Manongas did not reveal the identity of the priest in rebel hands for security reasons.

The fresh hostilities came as the government was preparing to resume peace talks with the MILF, aimed at ending a 42-year-old rebellion that has claimed 150,000 lives.

It was the second such attack on Zamboanga since 2001, when Misuari’s men also took dozens of hostages and left many more dead.

While curfew remains in effect, Mayor Salazar said city government operations are back to normal today except in places directly affected by the hostilities.

Classes in all levels remain suspended.

Salazar also urged business establishments to resume operations.

“We likewise appeal to business establishments to ensure that prices of commodities remain stable. The buying public is also advised not to resort to panic buying but purchase provisions enough for the day to prevent shortage of supplies,” Salazar said.

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Enrique Ona said that hospitals in the city are on Code Blue Alert, meaning they should make sure that they have enough medical and surgical supplies.

“I have given instruction that if they do not have enough or they run out of supplies, they should get from the private sector for augmentation,” he said. “All doctors should also report for duty, they have to be ready to be called anytime,” he said.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development said almost 3,000 families have been displaced by the clashes between soldiers and MNLF gunmen.

The displaced families were staying at the city grandstand, Tetuan Church, Tetuan Elementary School, Mampang Elementary School, Talon-Talon National High School, and at the Department of Public Works and Highways compound. With Alexis Romero, Rainier Allan Ronda, Sheila Crisostomo, Roel Pareńo, John Unson, Edith Regalado, AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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